Thomas Edison's pioneering Edison Company recorded a tremendous amount of material between 1914 and 1929, including a host of vaudeville sketches, opera, and classical pieces, string bands, jazz dance bands, political speeches, and even the voice of Mr. Edison himself. The company ceased making records in 1929, partially because of the rise of radio, which had made its commercial debut three years earlier. Not fully realizing that the public would pay for the privilege of hearing the music they wanted to hear at a time and place that was convenient for them (a premise that now drives the modern recording industry), Edison packed up its vast and varied catalog in boxes and stored it in an old warehouse until 1976, when Merritt Malvern began the process of transferring everything to archival tape. Most of this material has never been issued in any form, and Document Records has undertaken the daunting task of issuing it all on digital disc, beginning with this first installment, Country Music Pioneers on Edison. Most of what is here -- a mix of banjo and fiddle instrumentals and reworkings of popular songs and gospel hymns -- probably has more historical value than actual musical value, although a few of the tracks are quite striking, including the remarkable banjoist Fred Van Eps' "Medley of Southern Melodies" and Gene Austin's "The Railroad Blues," which also features pianist Charles Bates and George Reneau, who does an amazing job of mimicking a train pulling out of a station on his harmonica. The most eye-opening cut is the final one, "Nonsense," fiddler Carson Robison's bizarre piece of surreal Western swing from 1929, which clangs, clacks, reels, and wheezes like a 21st century experimental jazz composition full of fiddles and clarinets, proving that the public's perception of music may change, but musicians will always try to stretch the boundaries, no matter what the era. The entire history of recorded music falls inside the last 100 years, and this intriguing collection reminds us that -- at some level, at least -- all of it remains contemporary, and the distance between Robison's "Nonsense" and the latest Kanye West production is not so vast as one might imagine.
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AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett