Marvin Gaster

Uncle Henry's Favourites

Rounder CD 0382

Tracks: Shoefly/There'll Be A Hot Time in The Old Town Tonight/Shady Grove/The Longest Train I Ever Did See/Country Waltz/Goodbye Liza Jane/Mississippi Sawyer/Chicken's Crowing At Midnight/It Ain't Gonna Rain No More/Dancing Ladies/Darling What More Can I Do/The Italian Waltz/Holler/Tippin' in The Parlour/Mr. Catfish/Sundown/Old Log Cabin For Sale/Goodbye Annie Belle/Whistle On Your Way/Piper's Hornpipe/Johnson Gal/Poor Little Nell/Georgia Buck/The Boatman Song.
I would think that to the majority of us Marvin Gaster is a new name among the roster of Southern five-string banjo players.  Marvin is a man in his early sixties from Lee County, North Carolina and, according to the booklet accompanying the disc, is the last in the line of Lee County two finger pickers.  This is different from the three finger bluegrass style popularised by fellow North Carolinian Earl Scruggs or the pre-Scruggs musicians Snuffy Jenkins and his brother Oren.  Gaster's style is more aligned with the 'old timey' players, but more melodic than we are used to hearing from the more mountainous areas of the South.  Here the style of playing is more usually clawhammer/frailing/drop thumb/double noting/knock down etc.  It seems that only in relatively recent years that much of this style has come to be recorded.

One player who was just beginning to reach a wider audience in the world outside was fellow North Carolina player the late Carroll Best who unfortunately lost his life in a family argument just over a year ago.  Best used three fingers as opposed to two, but this again differed from the Scruggs and Jenkins.  Somewhat nearer to Gaster stylistically is Will Keys of Grey, Tennessee, another two finger picker who has also begun to attract more attention recently.  For reasons explained fully in the booklet accompanying this disc, Marvin grew up with his great uncle and aunt.  He became fascinated by the banjo early on in life and it was only after obtaining an instrument and getting it home that he found out that his great uncle could play.  Apart from his great uncle there were other local musicians from whom the young Gaster learnt his repertoire, and details of origins and authors are given in the notes.

Among the 24 titles here there is quite a variety of material, from traditional pieces such as Mississippi Sawyer and Georgia Buck, to popular songs of the late eighteen hundreds, e.g. Hot Time in The Old Town Tonight.  There are also two waltzes - a tempo that works very well with this two finger style but is never too successful in the various 'down picking' styles mentioned above.  The Longest Train here is not the one related to In the Pines, but seems to derive from the anti-slavery song No More Auction Block which also seems to have been the inspiration for Bob Dylan's melody for Blowing in the WindChicken Crowing reminds me in the B part of a tune played by the Skilliet Lickers; You Better Quit Kickin' My Dog Around, while Sundown is an instrumental version of a song recorded many years back by fellow North Carolinian banjo player, song collector, lawyer and festival organiser Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

Although this is primarily Gaster's album, there is a variety of instrumentation, with fiddle taking the lead on several tracks and the harmonica of Wade Yates on Goodbye Liza Jane and Goodbye Annie Belle which appears to be the tune more commonly known around the Galax, Va. area as Cold Icy Floor.  Rich Hartness is the fiddle player on one or two tracks and his wife Beth plays back up guitar.  Other musicians playing on various tracks are Robert Mitchener - guitar and fiddle, Norm Boggs - fiddle, Bob Carlin - guitar and Harry Gaster - string bass.

Overall, this is an interesting disc with some unfamiliar material mixed with the familiar, played in a more sedate, for want of a better word, manner.  My own problem with this album is Marvin's two vocal offerings.  There is certainly nothing wrong with them, but for my personal taste the voice sounds a little 'folky' - not out front or showing much conviction.  I guess that the banjo is where this man's heart lies and I have no problems on that score.  As is usual with Rounder, the accompanying booklet is excellent, giving a full background on Gaster as mentioned above, and tunings and origins of all of the material.

Frank Weston - 18.8 98

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