Bill Graves

Sugar in the Coffee
(Pre-revival dulcimer, fiddling and songs from the Missouri Ozarks)

Missouri Friends of Old-Time MSOTFA 301-CD

A number of CDs featuring Missouri fiddle players have been released in the past two years, the most visible of which (of Bob Holt, Fred Stoneking, and the late Lonnie Robertson) are on the Rounder Records label.  Less well-known but equally valuable are several recent releases by The Missouri State Old-Time Fiddlers Association, whose recordings of Missouri fiddle greats Nile Wilson, Dwight Lamb, Taylor McBaine, and Pete McMahon and are among the most important contributions to the midwestern old-time fiddling discography.  Sugar in the Coffee is MSOTFA's most recent release (1997), a CD which lets traditional and old-time music listeners in on one of Missouri's best-kept secrets, instrumentalist and singer Bill Graves.

Born in 1917, Bill Graves hails from Conway, not far from Lebanon, in the Missouri Ozarks.  Sugar in the Coffee, as the CD's subtitle makes clear, features not only Bill's fiddling but also his singing and his lap or "mountain" dulcimer playing.  (Incidentally, in performance Bill plays his dulcimer while standing up, with his instrument resting on a stand rather than on his lap).  Because of the scarcity of commercial recordings of traditional dulcimer playing, Bill's demonstration of proficiency on this instrument is arguably the CD's most singular feature.

Graves's dulcimer playing has a rhythmic, strongly accented, almost percussive, quality, with none of the sugary sweetness that is too often associated with the instrument since the folk revival (beginning with John Jacob Niles) brought it into prominence and altered it from a simple, melodic zither to a chordal, guitaresque instrument.  Graves produces his danceable playing by combining vigorous but loose wrist action with the use of a turkey quill and a hickory 'noter'.  The extremely high action of his rough-hewn dulcimer also facilitates the use of the turkey quill in this style of playing, something I discovered when Bill gave me a brief lesson in his right-hand technique, a technique which I could vaguely approximate when playing his dulcimer but which I tried in vain to reproduce on my own low-action instrument.  According to the album notes, Bill also sometimes uses a plucking technique to accompany slower ballads, but this is not represented on the CD.

According to the CD's notes, Graves's dulcimer was built by his grandfather, John Mahee, a "full-blooded" Cherokee and Civil War veteran who built both dulcimers and fiddles.  Both Mahee and Bill's mother referred to dulcimers as "Indian walking canes," a term which reflects the fact that many older dulcimers possessed a cane handle rather than a scroll at the instrument's peghead.  Bill himself never heard the word "dulcimer" applied to a "walking cane" until he visited the McSpadden dulcimer shop in Mountain View, Arkansas, during the 1970s.

Bill is a lively and engaging entertainer and this CD accurately reflects his stage performances, providing a good mix of dance tunes on both dulcimer and fiddle, as well as a number of vocal pieces, including gospel songs, such as Great Judgement Morning and Let Jesus Take Hold of the Wheel; "fiddle songs" like Got a Little Home to Go To, Turkey in the Straw and Liza Jane; and early country songs such as It's a Long Way Back to Texas (to the tune of It's a Long Way to Tipperary) and Cabin in Caroline.  When not joined by his daughter or producer Charlie Walden on guitar, Bill frames his songs with fiddle or dulcimer instrumentals, singing the verses unaccompanied.  Bill's daughter, Daisy Dame, provides the majority of the guitar accompaniment (which, like most good Ozark backup playing, is simple and unobtrusive) and joins her father in close harmony vocals on several songs.  Bill's wife Doris performs one dulcimer solo, an instrumental version of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, in which she demonstrates two different approaches to strumming - one employing a simple, sedate single-stroke technique (which Bill also uses occasionally) and the other the back-and-forth strumming technique more commonly associated with the playing of dance tunes.

The liner notes characterize Bill's fiddle playing as "archaic," which is an appropriate enough adjective to describe a style which has little of the refinement and notey-ness associated with fiddle playing from central and northern Missouri but plenty of the drones, backbeat, and strong accentuation reflective of the older styles of the Ozarks.  The fiddle and dulcimer tunes on the CD are mostly common waltzes and breakdowns - Jaybird, Sugar in the Coffee, Fire on the Mountain, etc. - but all have Bill's own stamp on them.

The CD also features Bill's relaxed and engaging storytelling, with anecdotes about his grandfather, his early instruction in the use of the turkey quill, and a performance at a brush arbor meeting, unobtrusively distributed among the tunes and songs.

Producer Charlie Walden's notes for the CD are well written and, though brief, provide helpful background information, particularly about Bill's dulcimer playing and, to a lesser degree, his family history and musical career.  I would have been glad of more extensive notes - specifically, information on the individual songs and tunes - but this is a minor quibble.  The sleeve also includes several excellent photos: closeups of Bill's battered dulcimer and portraits of him and his family.

But the CD as a whole is more than just the sum of the parts I have described: largely because of the skills of Bill Graves and his family, but also because of excellent engineering and judicious choice and arrangement of materials from Bill's large repertoire, it captures the spirit of a song and dance tradition which has entertainment and good feeling as its essence and whose practitioners take pleasure in the music they make and the people they make it for.  For sheer enjoyment, it's one of the best old-time CDs to be found inside or outside of the Show-Me State.  Hats off to Charlie Walden and MSOTFA.

Available from the Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association, P.O. Box 7423, Columbia, MO 65205, USA.  Also from Elderly Instruments, 1100 N Washington, P.O. Box 14249, Lansing, Michigan 48901-4249,

Julie Henigan - 11.3.99

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