Will Gilmer

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Will Gilmer is one of the most historic of Mississippi fiddlers, his interpretations and inventions of great influence to generations of players on his instrument. He is known chiefly as a member of the…
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Will Gilmer is one of the most historic of Mississippi fiddlers, his interpretations and inventions of great influence to generations of players on his instrument. He is known chiefly as a member of the Leake County Revelers, one of the most popular old-time string bands in Mississippi in the late '20s, as well as among one of the earliest groups to make records in that state. Like much of the blues and early country talent from Mississippi, the Leake County Revelers were a discovery of H.C. Speir, who was considered something like the Sam Phillips of Mississippi music in the '20s and '30s. Spier began working in the mid-'20s in the capacity of a "talent broker," or what would later be called in the record industry as an artist and repertory developer, or A&R man for short. He arranged sessions for Gilmer and his group that were released on Okeh and Columbia. Other members of the Leake County Revelers were banjoist Jim Wolverton, guitarist and lead singer Dallas Jones, and R.O. Moseley on the rarely played banjo-mandolin hybrid. The group became known quickly through its recordings for tunes played in a slow, easy tempo: exactly the opposite of all other string bands which highlighted the manic tempos of typical breakdown numbers. Gilmer recorded some 44 different sides with the band between 1927 and 1930, becoming a legend for the beauty and purity of his sound rather than fiddling at the speed of light. These recordings met with great success and have also enjoyed additional lifetimes through reissue ventures on labels such as Document and County. Not only has the group's entire output been made available via several volumes on these labels, various tracks by the group have shown up on a variety of compilation recordings, including sets focusing on old-time fiddling, yodelling, early American string bands, and primitive strains of country music. The Leake County Revelers were also quite famous for their original waltzes and complex vocal harmony arrangements, in direct contrast to what has seemed like a distinct lack of vocalizing by other Mississippi string bands. This may have had more to do with the commercial desires of the record labels than the repertoires of the groups, since instrumental repertoire was a main selling point of most string bands. As far as Gilmer's own vocal talent, a rare solo example is available on "Johnson Gal," available on the second volume in the Document series of the group's collected recordings. The fiddler revealed both his dry humor and love of mellow tempos by titling a piece of ornate, Baroque parlor music "Mississippi Breakdown," even though the piece is as far from a breakdown as New Jersey is from the Natchez Trace. "Wednesday Night Waltz," heavily featuring Gilmer and his trademark use of third position double stops, was the band's biggest hit. It was also one of first two records by the band that was pressed in 1927. This song has been covered by many other artists, particularly fiddlers, and has become a dance warhorse, sometimes appearing under the title of "Kitty Waltz." It was performed frequently by Curly Fox on the radio in the '30s and '40s, recorded again in the late '50s by Leroy Canaday, but fiddle scholars are happy to point out that none have yet matched the power of the original recording. The popularity of fiddlers during the era of the Leake County Revelers cannot be overemphasized. In some ways, these musicians were like the movie stars of their day and age. A typical example would be '30s politician Huey Long hiring Gilmer and his pals to play for his campaign, using the down-home music to reinforce his image as a grassroots populist. In the '90s, the Leake County Revelers were nominated for the Mississippi Hall of Fame, and have inspired such modern-day string band revival groups as the Old Hat String Band and the Hinds County Revelers.