Various Artists

Nashville: The Early String Bands, Vol. 2 [1976]

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The two volumes in this series -- quite a set of freaky hillbilly twins in either LP or CD configuration -- are misleading because of the "string band" designation in the title. In reality, the sets document the late-'20s radio and recording scene in Nashville that launched the Grand Old Opry and the national concept of country & western music along with it. It is a fabulous compilation, but there is no real emphasis on particular types of ensembles. Purchasers of the album version of Nashville: The Early String Bands, Vol. 2 were the most bewildered of all, since the nifty booklet covering both volumes was only enclosed along with the first. All buyers of the second volume got was a couple of paragraphs of introductory information on the back cover and the song list, in which only five out of 13 songs actually feature string bands. The notion of string bands was going through a popular revival in the mid-'70s when this series first came out. To be sure, groups such as the Red Clay Ramblers were cooking on the festival circuit and the shops that sold this kind of material may have indeed pushed a compilation harder that had "string band" in the title. This is just speculation as to why a knowledgeable label such as County would have chosen this theme when the reality was just as interesting, and the results of the misrepresentation so ludicrous. The listener winds up with DeFord Bailey's harmonica solos presented on a string band compilation. The harmonica is not a stringed instrument, and he is not a band, even though he can sound like one. Each passage of Bailey's famous showpiece, "Pan American Blues," is full of perfectly well-rounded notes and intonation worthy of being baked into a blackberry tart, ample evidence that Bailey was a virtuoso instrumentalist, not just a funny showman. He is typical of the quality of the performers that wound making early Opry history. Often, these artists were among the first in their particular style to make recordings, and in some cases only a few tracks have ever been located by a particular artist. This album features two tracks by the wonderful fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who is often said to be the first country performer to ever play live on the radio, although he actually wasn't. Most famous of all are Uncle Dave Macon and brothers Kirk and Sam McGee -- these three performers, who have fat discographies of their own material available, are heard as a quartet called the Fruit Jar Drinkers, along with fiddler Mazy Todd, and in solo and duo combinations. The most unusual side to this volume would be the performances that display a haunting classical influence, despite the efforts at suppression carried out by Opry boss "Judge" George D. Hay. Blind Joe Mangrum's performance of "Bill Cheatham" is as fascinating as music gets, delivered as if the performer had classical training -- which he didn't -- and flavored with a basil-scented sprig of Italian folk music. Theron Hale & Daughters perform two tracks of old-timey music as politely as if one was sitting in a parlor. These performances have an almost ghostly intimacy, and also create a wonderful sense of tension in the programming. The CD version of this volume is padded out with related material, much of it string band oriented, and the sequencing is completely changed. Some listeners may find the extended version too much, and the original track order more dynamic and dramatic.