Wilson Douglas

The Right Hand Fork of Rushes Creek

Rounder Archive 82161-0047-2

Cotton-Eyed Joe, Rocky Road to Dublin, Little Rose, Walking in the Parlor, Elzic's Farewell, Yew Piney Mountain, Shelvin' Rock, Camp Chase, West Fork Girls, Brushy Run, Old Christmas Morning, Chicken Reel, Paddy on the Turnpike, Forked Buck, Old Mother Flanagan, Fly Around, My Blue-eyed Girl, Boatin' Up Sandy, Ain't Going to Rain No More, Cumberland Gap, The Devil in Georgia, Salt River, Going on Down Town, Arkansas Traveler, One More River to Cross.


The original 1974 long playing record of this music was very influential upon release in disseminating West Virginia style fiddle music and repertoire into the old-time music revival.  play Sound ClipLargely due to this recording, a new audience became familiar with tunes that were mostly known in central West Virginia up to that time: Shelvin' Rock, Old Christmas Morning, Yew Piney Mountain, Elzic's Farewell, Little Rose, and West Fork Gals (sound clip).  These tunes and renditions became one of the gateways through which many a musician (from both within and without the state) embarked on their odyssey into West Virginia music, a journey that would lead them to gatherings such as Pipestem Music Festival, the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville, the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, and others.  Cover pictureAt these places, the music of an older generation of West Virginians such as Wilson Douglas, Melvin Wine, Phoebe Parsons, Lee Triplett and others could be experienced intimately, personal friendships would develop, and the whole experience would inspire these sojourners upon their own paths.  Though Rounder was a relatively young company at the time, it was growing (it is for all intents and purposes a major label now) and its distribution allowed this music to reach far beyond its local origins.  In later years, the recording efforts of Gerry Milnes and Michael Kline of the Augusta Heritage Center, David O'Dell of Roane Records, and others would build upon this LP's foundation in documenting West Virginia's musical tradition.  So, as I say, this recording has quite a history to it.

First off, it is necessary to deal with the history of the recording sessions.  Reissue producer Mark Wilson explains this in more detail in a production note, but the essence of the matter boils down to this: Wilson Douglas made the record with accompanists he was not familiar with and in a strange environment.  Unlike Buddy Thomas whose Kitty Puss record had been recorded largely at Gus Meade's home the previous December, Wilson wasn't very comfortable being in urban setting and away from home for an extended period of time.  Gruder Morris, his uncle, guitar player, and main musical partner of the time, was unable to be involved in the sessions and the result was a recording that Wilson, in later years, felt not to be the best showcase of his music.

However, despite the results not being quite what the principle performer might have desired, a musical voodoo was at work during these sessions and the aural result is much better than it sometimes gets credit for.  Doug Meade, Gus's son, played fine and unobtrusive guitar on the recording and Roy O 'Speedy' Tolliver is a great banjo player with a unique style of fingerpicking.  Though he's from a different musical tradition (Konnarock in Southwest Virginia though he's a longtime resident of the Washington, DC area), in places the music really cooks such as with Cotton-Eyed Joe, and this is due to the inherent talents of these individuals.  A lot of younger players recently getting into old-time music have taken to finger style banjo back-up and have credited Speedy's playing.  On occasion the back-up is clearly not ideal, as with the tune Little Rose, which to my ears always worked much better as a solo piece (and has been recorded by Wilson this way elsewhere).  But overall the playing is fine and quite good considering the fact that the musicians had not met until a few days before recording.  Unlike Nashville music sessions, quality old-time music isn't something that can be produced on demand, but rather incubates and develops over longer stretches.  Considering this, the musicians did a fine job and these sounds have been deeply embedded in the ears of many musicians in the years since.

The Package:

This current release is part of both the Rounder Archive and the North American Traditions series.  The Rounder Archive project is an initiative to make available both older recordings from Rounder's catalog as well as newer ones in a limited release.  The method of accomplishing this slightly distinguishes the project from previous Rounder treatments, and this is worth commenting on.  One trait common among the Rounder Archive series is a uniformity of design in the tray cards, which tend to look the same when you line them up on the shelf next to each other.  However, don't let this fool you into thinking the music inside these packages is commonplace or without distinction.  That isn't the case, and if the music of the Wilson Douglas issue is any indication, then we are in for more musical treats to come.  As has become the norm with reissue projects, nine extra tracks from the 1974 sessions are included on the new release.  Some of these outstanding tracks include Cumberland Gap, which rolls along gracefully as well as the rare One More River to Cross.  According the Kim Johnson, who was Wilson's closest musical partner later in life, Wilson never played this tune for her, showing the value of this recording in preserving at least a portion of his repertoire that he later dropped.

To save costs, liner notes are embedded on each CD as a PDF document which can be read on a personal computer and printed out or found on Rounder's website free of charge.  In a way, this innovation is an improvement on those fat CD booklets with the small print and small photos.  With the printout / PDF option, one can read the notes in normal type.  However, there is one possible drawback in that not everyone who buys the CD will have easy access to a personal computer.  Considerations such as these held back some local West Virginia recording companies from transitioning to the CD format until long after other labels had done so.  The notes themselves consist of five sections: the original 1974 overview of Wilson by Nancy McLellan; a 'Comments on the Tunes' section by McLellan, Wilson Douglas, and Gus Meade; the autobiographical piece narrated by Wilson, 'How I Came to Be a Fiddler'; a new article by Paul Gartner (journalist with the Charleston Gazette) updating an piece originally written for the Old-Time Herald magazine; and finally a production note by Mark Wilson, who recorded the original sessions and supervised the CD reissue.  Taken together with the music, these form a comprehensive package showcasing the man and his music.

The Music:

Wilson's place within West Virginia's musical legacy runs deep.  A native of Clay County, he learned first hand from his grandmother Rosie Morris as well as neighbors Tom Carpenter and his son French (whose CD reissue, Elzics Farewell is reviewed in these pages), who was a distant cousin of Wilson's.  Tom Carpenter's father was Sol Carpenter, which links Wilson's musical legacy to that illustrious family.  [Sol Carpenter was a prisoner in the Union's army's Camp Chase during the Civil War, and he is the fiddler of the old saw which credits him with creating the tune by that title as a method of winning a fiddle contest held between prisoners, and thus escaping from the camp.]  Wilson apprenticed himself to French Carpenter for years, internalizing the highly individualized nature of his style and tunes.  Ed Haley of Logan County also made a fierce impression upon Wilson, who would go to great lengths just to hear the blind fiddler play, such was his devotion to fiddling.  Haley convinced Wilson to devote himself to the fiddle only (he had also been a guitar player), and Wilson took away some of Ed's repertoire as well as a lot of inspiration.

Many Central West Virginia fiddle players do not feel the need to adhere to a strict structure of the tunes, and Wilson was known for changing the number of times he would play a part during a single rendition, and felt no inhibition about adding musical tags at will.  Some might call this inconsistency, others creative license which adds an element of unknown expectancy for the listener.  He did not imitate any of his mentors directly, including French Carpenter who strongly encouraged him not to do so.  He is unmistakably a West Virginia traditional fiddler, sharing repertoire, basic technique, and aesthetics with his contemporaries and predecessors.  This is the paradox of high artistry within tradition, that you can create something new out of something old.  He is specifically a Clay County fiddler, in that his music is grounded in that community of musicians; in addition to those already named, this group included fiddlers such as Doc White and Lee Triplett who shared repertoire with Wilson as well as their own unique approach to the music.  Unlike some of the aforementioned fiddlers in his community, Wilson favored a mid-tempo, relaxed pacing common to many (but not all) older rural tradition musicians.  Despite not rushing his music in any way (a crutch used by many to create musical excitement), Wilson was able to impart great intensity and emotion in his playing.

Though in later years he was always a powerful solo fiddler, he preferred to play in a small group situation and spoke of this as his musical ideal.  Paul Gartner writes, 'To Wilson, old-time music sounds right when fiddle, banjo, and guitar create one sound that is more than fiddle and back-up.'  You can hear tentative steps in that direction on this recording, though he may not have been as relaxed due to his unfamiliarity with the other musicians.  However, this kind of emphatic interplay can be heard on the contemporary recordings with his uncle Gruder Morris as well as the later recordings made in the 1980s and 1990s with Kim Johnson and Mark Payne, where at times you experience the aesthetics of a solo fiddle style being transferred to a group setting, making for thrilling music.  The benefit of hearing Wilson in 1974 versus 20-some years later, however, is that his playing is a bit more vital and strong than in later years.

As the notes testify, Wilson worked extremely hard to achieve his singular sound, often being unable to sleep and getting up in the middle of the night to work on a tune.  He told Dwight Diller that it took ten years just to begin to learn to play the fiddle, and that 'it gets awful expensive just to play a little [bit] of fiddle,' play Sound Clippossibly meaning that to be a great musician is to invest a huge amount of one's time and energy in life, to the potential detriment of other activities.  The result of Wilson's dedication is a very lonesome, almost bluesy sound on the solo fiddle tunes, such as on Yew Piney Mountain (sound clip).  A selection of central West Virginia tunes, such as those mentioned above, is showcased on the recording alongside Wilson's takes on standard tunes such as play Sound ClipOld Mother Flanagan, Arkansas Traveler, and Cotton-Eyed Joe.  Wilson takes these latter tunes and makes you hear them in a fresh way.  For instance, Cotton-Eyed Joe (sound clip), often played cross-tuned in the key of A, is rendered following French Carpenter's convention of setting it in G, giving it an entirely different flavor.

Wilson had a special vocabulary for his fiddle techniques, inherited from French Carpenter, which Paul Gartner describes:

drone notes, stabs (shuffle), jabs, wobble (short up and down), rock, double dip, dwell, sway, roll (also called an overlick), and last, the chalk note, which Wilson defined as 'The hand is quicker than the eye.' And it was!
These terms demonstrate that Wilson ornamented tunes more with the bow than via elaborate left hand fingerings such as those favored in more modern fiddle styles.  Wilson's manner of bowing is relaxed and smooth, with rough-edged punctuation employed with taste.  His fingering is elastic, often consisting of elongated slides up into notes that seem impossibly long but always arrived on time, even if at the last possible moment.  To watch Wilson play was to see a player who used an incredible economy of motion to achieve his sound; his left hand fingers did not raise themselves above the fingerboard any more than was necessary.

Finally, Wilson was reflective and philosophical when it came to music.  This quality is highlighted in the autobiographical section of the notes, which came to be a hallmark of all Mark Wilson / John Harrod / Gus Meade productions for Rounder (now known as the North American Tradition series).  To give him the last word, Wilson says:

And the way I feel about music, I think these musicians - I hope I do it myself - each one is expressing his past, his present, what he should have been, and what he hopes to be.  And he's expressing all of his sorrows, all of his happiness - if you study him close you can almost read his life.  And I think when you're playing good, clean, honest music - banjo-picking, guitar-playing, fiddling, what have you - I think you're just as close to heaven on this earth as you'll ever be.  If you've got the music in you.  You know what I mean?  I believe that.  I don't mean I put that above the hereafter or above an eternal life.  But in this world, that's my Paradise.  In this world.

Scott Prouty - 24.10.05
Washington, DC

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