Various Artists

Early Days of Bluegrass, Vol. 5: Rich-R-Tone Story

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When the veteran North Carolina senator Jesse Helms began picking on the National Endowment for the Arts in the '80s, one wonders if he realized that the funding body had recently helped pay the bills for this incredible series of early bluegrass reissues, documenting much important music from Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina itself. Surely there is even material here that Helms could relate to, such as the threatening ditty "The Wicked Path of Sin" by Stoney and Wilma Lee Cooper. At any rate, this volume focuses on the Rich R Tone label, one of the most important companies to produce bluegrass recordings in the early days of that genre's development. While a variety of labels had been going around the country recording "race," "hillbilly," and "folk" records since the '20s, the outlook of Rich R Tone was more like the "D.I.Y" or doing-it-yourself ethic identified with generations down the line when punk groups put out their own records and various cooperatives were formed. The firm's owner and founder, James Stanton, began a mission in the '40s to record the music that was popular and being played at the time in the Appalachians, regardless of whether it was considered "folk" or not. And this music was bluegrass in its innovative and formative stages. Stanton drove around the countryside selling these albums out of the back of his car. The bluegrass bands that got their start through his enterprise include the Stanley Brothers, whose Ralph Stanley would finally pick up a Grammy in 2002. They are represented with the fine track "Little Glass of Wine." The 15 other tracks include one or two songs each by nine other bluegrass and/or rural gospel outfits, most of which are fairly obscure besides the aforementioned Stoney and Wilma Lee Cooper. Glenn Neaves and the Grayson County Boys kick things off with a terrific version of "The Old Swinging Bridge," while other highlights include the team of Pee Wee Lambert and Curly Parker energizing the "Weary Hobo" and recalling "Just a Memory." "Rattlesnake Daddy" is the single lively entry from a combination of the Bailey Brothers and the Happy Valley Boys, and will make listeners want to hear more by these players. A 1954 recording by the Caudill Family is a stunning example of four-part vocal harmonizing from the Appalachian gospel tradition. Frank Hunter and His Black Mountain Boys are also featured with two superb recordings, the heartfelt "Long Time No See" and a song that could be something of a tribute to Sir Stanton of Johnson City -- "Tennessee Boy." The excellent documentation standard set by this series continues with this set, which includes a well-done booklet about the artists involved and the history of the label.

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