The wild, archaic sound of this album of North Carolina fiddle and claw hammer banjo duets has made it somewhat of a classic among fans of Appalachian music, and it's easy to see why. Although Tommy Jarrell handles the fiddle here, and Fred Cockerham the banjo, they easily could have switched off, since both were proficient on either instrument, and both sang (Jarrell handles the vocals on this album) with the same gruff but expressive passion. The set, casually recorded in the 1960s and early 1970s, is made up of traditional songs prevalent in the Round Peak area where both men grew up, and the loose, ragged propulsion in most of these pieces makes it clear that they were intended as dance tunes. Everything is of a piece, making Best Fiddle & Banjo Duets a seamless quilt, so it is difficult to single out individual songs, but "June Apple" was certainly a signature song from the area, and "Soldier's Joy" has a sturdy appeal in anyone's hands. There are a couple of oddities, however, including an interesting variant of "Frankie and Johnny" called "Frankie Baker," and a mournful spiritual called "When Sorrows Encompass Me 'Round" that Jarrell sings with the dread of an exhausted man continually haunted by death. Jarrell's fiddle playing isn't technically perfect here, and smoothness isn't his calling card, but he plays with so much soul and charge that it hardly matters, and Cockerham's claw hammer banjo bubbles, percolates and churns on its modal way with the steadiness of a steam piston. This isn't bluegrass, but something older and looser, and it carries more soul. Jarrell has other albums similar to this one available (Cockerham has only tracks on old timey music collections, all of which are worth seeking out), but none catches the harsh and joyous thrill of his fiddle as well as this one.
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AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett