There is a vintage photograph from the '20s that has been frequently used to evoke an old-time mood. It depicts two musicians sitting on a front porch, instruments in their hands and at their feet. There is a fiddler who is staring at the camera, and at his right a banjo player who seems to be staring off into the heavens. Despite the frequency with which this photo pops up, the musicians who are illustrated are largely forgotten. The man with the banjo was Dick Burnett and he was actually one of the most prominent old-time players from Kentucky during the '20s and '30s. He was a man who traveled far and wide almost in the manner of a railroad hobo, but with a much busier itinerary. He spent his years collecting traditional music, creating his own interpretations and writing the results down in songbooks that he would sell along the way. One of his main playing partners was fiddler Leonard Rutherford, who happens to be the other fellow in the aforementioned photograph. The pair cut a whole series of sides for the Columbia and Gennett labels in the period between 1926 and 1928, and also recorded with a variety of other old-time players on their own. The resurgence in interest in old-time music and various other forms of American folk music that began in the '60s largely passed Burnett by, although he was visited a few times by musicologists and old-time music aficionados. Archie Green, a respected folklorist, interviewed Burnett at his home in Monticello, KY, in 1962. A decade later, a similar visit was made by writer Charles Wolfe, who published the results in Old Time Music. This even brought the man a bit of local attention when one of his local papers reprinted the entire article. The old-time music revival was in full swing at this point, and in 1975, the Rounder label issued the first album devoted to the work of Burnett and several of his associates, entitled A Ramblin' Reckless Hobo. He certainly had rambled, there was no doubt about that, but how reckless the man was is questionable since he lived to a ripe age of 93 years old. At any rate, several journalists who specialized in this genre of music recounted their enjoyment at visiting Burnett upon the release of this album, and observing his delighted reactions to hearing performances of songs that he had almost forgotten about over the decades that had passed. Burnett could no longer play in his old age, but his mind remained sharp as a razor until the end and he apparently delighted interviewers with anecdotes of days gone by, as well as much information about the various pieces of music he had performed over the years. Acknowledged as a fine poet and songwriter, as well as player, the music of Burnett and Rutherford perfectly captures traditional American music at a point when it began to evolve into what would become commercial country & western music through the advent of phonograph records and radio stations.
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