Crockett's Kentucky Mountaineers
Classic Old Time String Band Music
Buell Kazee
Legendary Kentucky Ballad Singer
Bill Carlisle
Duvall County Blues

Yazoo's epic collection Kentucky Mountain Music (Yazoo 2200) has recently received considerable acclaim on this site and elsewhere, and quite rightly so, as it certainly is, despite one serious shortcoming (more on that another day, perhaps), the best anthology of American Old Time Music I have ever heard, and would think that has ever been issued.  However, even over the course of seven CDs, it does not tell the whole story of Kentucky in the Twenties and Thirties (in fairness, the compilers make no claim to) and indeed it does not even tell the whole story of the featured musicians as these three recent releases perfectly demonstrate.

It is maybe worth mentioning here that the 7CD set is an extension of two very fine CDs, issued a few years ago - The Music of Kentucky Vols 1 & 2 (Yazoo 2013 and 2014) deriving from the same sources and period (but not duplicating the box set), including such luminaries as the gospel performers Alfred G Karnes and Ernest Phipps, ballad singers Emry Arthur, John Hammond and B F Shelton, and another host of string bands and Library of Congress recordings.  However, it is not within the remit even over 9 CDs, to include the country blues and yodels of Bill and Cliff Carlisle, the ballads of Bradley Kincaid and the Coon Creek Girls, the country swing of the superlative Prairie Ramblers, the radio favourites Karl and Harty and Little Jimmie and Asher Sizemore, never mind the groundbreaking early works of Bill Monro.  And I am only scratching the surface here so, Jeez, Kentucky must have been one hell of a place for music lovers seventy years ago!

But what of the music on offer here?  Yazoo presented seven tracks, one of each CD of the set by Crockett's Kentucky Mountainers, all bar one of which are classic string band performances play Sound Clip(Sugar Hill is a superb vocal and banjo piece by patriarch John Sr 'Dad' Crockett).  Indeed, they describe Little Rabbit as 'a consummate masterpiece' and they do not exaggerate (sound clip).  But on listening to BACM 23 it very soon becomes clear that Yazoo have been very selective in their choice of material.  Cover pictureIn fact, they say as much and there is absolutely nothing wrong in that; I am no great fan of the 'every single recording in chronological order' approach to reissues.  While four of those tracks are repeated here, plus two more excellent medleys and a good verison of Skip to my Lou featuring sister Elnora's vocal, the remainder of the CD presents the band in a very different light altogether.

The family originated from Sharpsburg, Kentucky (although 'Dad' was a native of West Virginia), but settled - after a brief spell in Mexico - in Fresno County, California in 1919, where they performed locally for friends and neighbourhood gatherings.  In 1926 Mrs Crockett arranges an audition for them to perform on local radio KMJ where they are an immediate success, leading to a daily fifteen minute evening show on the national CBS network and a lucrative career playing nationwide on the RKO vaudeville circuit.  play Sound ClipSo they have built up a large and varied repertoire in a variety of styles, of which classic mountain music is but a small part.  A one minute excerpt of Cripple Creek demonstrates this development a hundred times better than I ever could (sound clip).

And generally it is the vocals that grate on me more than the music, which even when plainly anticipating Western Swing, as on Gamblin' Man and I was Born 10,000 Years Ago, is never less than fine.  But even that is absent on the dreary Convict's Song and In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree and positively turgid on After the Ball, which has no connection whatever with any form of traditional music.  But not all this radio fodder is this bad - the plantation song Rosalee is gloriously politically incorrect but musically quite good, while brothers Johnnie and Albert perform a superb guitar instrumental Fresno Blues.

So there you have it - 19 very varied tracks, about one third of which is as good as it gets, another third not bad but nothing special, and in a style that would be taken to an altogether higher level by such groups as The Prairies Ramblers and The Maddox Brothers and Rose, and the remainder quite frankly dreadful.  Can't really say much more than that.

A similar contradiction is found in the work of Buell Kazee (BACM 027), the main difference being that the gulf in performance values is far less pronounced Cover pictureand that here we are dealing with music of a far higher order altogether.

Kazee, originally of German extraction, was born in 1900 in Magoffin County, Kentucky, and grew up in a region steeped in Anglo-American balladry and banjo playing.  But clearly he was no primitive, backwoods mountaineer, going to college to study English, Greek and Latin, and taking some formal music training in New York, occasionally lecturing (in tie and tails) on his native Kentucky 'Folk Music'.  The combination of these two lifestyles, aparently poles apart, was to produce, when first recorded by Brunswick in 1927, probably the most distinctive, and certainly among the finest examples of American balladry ever committed to wax.  But in the back of your mind there is always this feeling that, while totally committed to the job in hand, Kazee would rather be experimenting with something far more sophisticated.

The Yazoo set contains eight such classic performances, five of which are included here, all combining the incessant, driving banjo and that high lonesome singing that are the trademarks of so much Kentuky music.  If you have never heard Kazee, a more sedate Roscoe Holcomb is a fair description.  Of course, the three finest tracks are the traditional ballads - The Butcher's Boy, The Wagoner's Lad play Sound Clip(both included 50 years ago on the ground-breaking Harry Smith collection) and Lady Gay.  Ray Templeton, who knows more about real music than most, for some reason, somewhere listed his top five ballad performances of all time and included Kazee's Lady Gay - I have no problems with that (sound clip).

This superb standard is maintained further on an exemplary repertoire of American balladry including East Virginia, The Dying Soldier, Old Whisker Bill the Moonshiner and The Cowboy Trail.  Kazee had a curious liking for cowboy songs possibly because his best selling record was Little Mohee (a version of The Indian Lass) but I have always found The Cowboy Trail for some reason one of the saddest and most evocative songs in the recorded history of Old Time Music.  Where the doubts start to creep in, however, are on the parlour ballads, the religious pieces, and the sentimental songs.  The Orphan Girl and The Blind Man, despite their dreary themes, are fabulous performances but it's when Buell overrules the record engineers and gets his own way, laying down the banjo, that things start to go tits up.  play Sound ClipThe five string is replaced by either a plodding guitar or piano, and a very sweet and sickly violin makes a most unwelcome appearance.  I'm Alone in this World in a trio with the McCravy Brothers is a very stiff-collared gospel performance, as is The Ship that's Sailing High, while The Faded Coat of Blue is rescued only because it is such a great tune (sound clip).

But it is on the novelty items when the feeling of pure horror becomes overwhelming.  I hate 'clever' music, but 'novelty' I find even worse.  Nonetheless, a few tracks such as Toll the Bell with slide guitar and (of course) bells are by no means the worst examples of this genre, but the two performances with Carson Robison - Redwing and Snow Deer are as toe-curling as it gets and inexplicably BACM have placed these two shockers at first and third in this collection.

I know I sound overly critical, but that is only because Buell Kazee has always been one of my favourite ever singers and there is enough material available to have compiled the ultimate collection of American balladry.  That said, I would be very disappointed if my few negative comments deter anyone from getting this CD and experiencing some of the greatest music ever recorded.

Nevertheless, you will no doubt be pleased to hear that I have no such problems with Bill Carlisle: Duvall County Blues.  As I mentioned, no comparisons with the Yazoo set, no distortions in the presentation of recorded legacy, just a good representative collection of Carlisle's early work that is both entertaining and consistent.  Cover pictureNo major highs or lows - though in all honesty, no great fireworks either.

A native of Spencer County, Kentucky, Bill was the younger brother of the outstanding slide guitarist and blue yodeller Cliff Carlisle who, following Jimmie Rodgers' premature death in 1933, established himself as the premier white bluesman of his generation.  Bill, on the other hand, tended to favour simpler, more sentimental or comic offerings.  He yodelled sparingly (a great relief to this reviewer), and only featured the slide guitar when occasionally accompanied by Cliff.  Consequently, he has never received the same kudos as his brother from those more open-minded blues collectors and commentators prepared to acknowledge that white country blues even existed.

It is a bit ironic then that the standout tracks on this collection are in fact the four overt blues numbers - play Sound Clipthe imaginative Sugar Cane Mama, the train blues Duvall County, Penitentiary Blues and his first recording, the very fine Rattlesnake Daddy (sound clip).  There is some suggestion elsewhere, however, that the brothers toned down their more raunchy, specifically their double-entendre, repertoire when Cliff's very young son, Tommy, joined the family act in 1936, concentrating on a more wholesome, largely sentimental image.  Indeed, there are several items here in that mould, that pair Bill with Cliff's guitar work and vocals (though, sadly, not Little Tommy - who even at five was a terrific singer) and the excellent mandolin work of Shannon Grayson who was later to feature prominently in the development of Bluegrass.

And what a pleasant and unassuming collection it is, ranging from the fine gospel pieces If Jesus Should Come andplay Sound Clip I Dreamed I Searched Heaven for You, to the overtly sentimental I'll Always be Your Little Darling, to what can only be described as lovely, simple old songs such as Beneath the Weeping Willow Tree (sound clip).  The one style I would have liked Carlisle to exploit more was that of the comic song, which he invariably accompanied with his own lightning speed flat picked guitar (there is another good example of this on Push Them Clouds Away, Musical Traditions MTCD101), but here this format is only represented by the outstanding I Done it Wrong which is not only musically superb but, unusually for this period, genuinely funny.

It was however the comic song that formed the basis of Bill Carlisle's incredibly lengthy career and, although brother Cliff retired in the Forties (he made a brief folk festival comeback in the '70s), Bill was to lead the family group 'The Carlisles' for the next sixty years, regularly performing on the Grand Ole Opry until 2002 when, at the age of 93, he was to become the oldest performer ever to appear on the show and was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Bill Carlisle died earlier this year (2003) and I would guess that this CD of his early work is as fitting a tribute as you are likely to hear.

So here we have three CDs, all interesting additions to the collections of any Old Time Music enthusiast and, in Kazee's case, way beyond that.  The sound quality is generally excellent but the presentation pretty basic, with very brief notes by Brian Golbey (a name that goes way way back in Country Music), and a smattering of nice photos.  One thing I must point out, though, is that I pride myself in keeping my ear to the ground regarding new releases of interest (I now have the time to do this even more effectively) and have only ever seen these CDs advertised in Country Newsletter, based in West Virginia, so I was a bit surprised to find that the three CDs had made an 800 mile round trip to me from Dover, which is one hour's drive from where I live!  Still, I'm glad they did.

Available from: British Archive of Country Music, 451 Folkestone Road, Dover, Kent CT17 9JX, UK.

Keith Summers - 9.12.03

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