Spencer Moore

Spencer Moore

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Spencer Moore's debut album was a long time coming. Seventy-plus years coming, to be exact, and it might not have happened at all if Josh Rosenthal, who runs Tompkins Square Records, hadn't attended a retrospective exhibition of photographs taken by the legendary Alan Lomax. Rosenthal was particularly struck by a photo of a man shown singing and playing guitar against a tobacco field backdrop, a photo, it turned out, that was taken by Lomax in 1959 at a field recording session he was doing of a young tobacco farmer named Spencer Moore (several of the tracks recorded that day ended up as part of Lomax's Southern Journey project). Rosenthal proceeded to track down Moore, who by this time was 87-years-old and retired, at his home in Chilhowie, VA, and on June 2006, ran tape on the elderly singer. The resulting spare and acoustic Spencer Moore album is startlingly refreshing for its complete lack of pretense. Moore isn't a great guitar player, and his singing is frequently pitch challenged, and none of the 14 tracks presented on the album have a snowball's chance in hell of being played on a commercial radio station, but the utter simplicity and honesty of the whole record makes it seem almost radically conceived in a world full of loops, drum samples, heavy compression, and quick edit market campaigns. Truthfully, with songs like "Three Little Babes" (a children's ballad more often known as "The Wife of Usher's Well") and the old minstrel show staple "Jimmy Sutton," Moore's album hardly seems to belong to this century at all. That's the charm of it. Rosenthal recorded Moore in the spring of 2006, but the session could have taken place at almost any time in the last 100 years, so insular is the song selection, although not every song here has an ancient lineage. One of the most poignant tracks is "Our Baby Boy Is Gone," a song Moore's wife wrote after the death of the couple's only child, and Moore's own "In the Year of '41" recounts what it was like to leave his rural home and join the U.S. military during World War II. Both of these, though, take their form from standard mountain melodies, and show no traces whatsoever of Tin Pan Alley contrivances. Another striking track is Moore's version of Walter "Kid" Smith's "The Lawson Family Murders," a song Smith wrote shortly after Charlie Lawson murdered his wife and six children on Christmas Day in 1929 in Stokes County, NC. Delivered by Moore with the same cadence and approach that he uses for older fare like "Three Little Babes," Smith's brutal cautionary tale thus slides seamlessly into the realm of ancient murder ballads. Rumored to know hundreds, if not thousands, of old songs by heart, Moore is among the last of his kind, a true folk singer whose knowledge of the songs he sings makes him a true national treasure.

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