"Old-timey music" (*)-- that plinky-planky acoustic hick style -- is admittedly an acquired taste. The grumpy backwoods aunt and uncle of bluegrass music, old-timey harkens back to an older, plainer, more down-country era. Even though there's a lot of stylistic crossover, many bluegrass and country fans find the old-timey stuff to be a bit too nasal, or twangy, or primitive, or goofy... while legions of other listeners love the stuff.
If old-timey music so damn irritating, then what is its appeal? Maybe part of it is some sort of elitist/obscurist search for something "different", and the shock at finding something so exotic and foreign sitting right there in your back yard... Perhaps it's an academic impulse, the fascination of seeing folk material reworked and retranslated into so many forms, with each gulley and hamlet spinning out its own version of some time-worn theme, and the thrill of realizing that -- like so many folk forms -- this music has been brought back from the brink of extinction by only a thread... and there it is for you to listen to and enjoy. Finally, maybe it's actually just the starkness of the material, the sincerity of the performers, the discovery of an art form that really is pure and self-contained, and the low-key familiarity these singers have with weird old tunes that they've heard all their lives... Especially their sense of humor when that wide-eyed kid from New York shows up on the porch with a microphone, asking if you could break out the banjo and play Grandma's version of "Froggy Went A-Courtin' " one more time.
At any rate, after years of qualifying my reviews of old-timey albums by starting off, "this might not be for everyone, BUT..." I have finally decided to put up a web page devoted to the style and be done with it.
Here, then, is my celebration of old-timey music and the art of the plinky-planky.
A top-notch set of blues-tinged early country music from this North Carolina guitarist. Many of these songs are now folk scene standards, including the title track, which was one of the pivotal early hits for the late-'50s folkie revival, when recorded by the Kingston Trio. In these original versions, Ashley's Depression-era recordings strike the perfect balance between the grimly morbid sensibilities of the old-time mountain music and the buoyancy of the emerging commercial country scene. He has an edge, yet avoids the psychotic intensity of Dock Boggs, who could also be considered a precursor to rock-style music. This is a great set, full of lively, good-humored performances and plenty of great tunes. Highly recommended!
Stark, some might even say scary, old 78s by one of the legendary ne'er-do-wells of old-timey music. A fabulous set culled from the record collections of John Fahey and friends, this has all the charm of the stringband tradition, but with a blues-based roughness to it which puts to shame the bad boy images of many of Boggs' contemporaries. You can tell just from the tone of his voice that Boggs was the real deal. Packaged inside a handsome, hefty, hardcover booklet, with liner notes by Griel Marcus.
The Carter Family -- see artist discography
Hard to imagine anyone raspier and more "high lonesome" than old-timey banjo balladeer Roscoe Holcomb, who wowed the 'Sixties folk revival crowd with his extensive repertoire and uncompromised, rough-edged style. The irregular meters and weird subject matter of old-timey music remained intact in Holcomb's work, right up through the 1970s, despite years of performing. These recordings are an interesting mix of showmanship and backwoods authenticity... For fans of the style, this stuff is tops!
J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers "The Golden Age Of J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers" (Binge Disc, 2000)
If you thought old Bill Monroe sounded rough and rowdy back when he started the bluegrass sound way back when, then you gotta check these guys out! Mainer and his family enjoyed a healthy career revival in the 1960s and '70s as the old-timey folk scene unearthed them... Their latter day recordings were all quite nice, but this collection of material from the 1930s and '40s is flat out awesome. When they play fast, there's no one more clattersome and rambunctious, and when they play slow and sentimental, few folks are more hearfelt. For fans of squeeky, scraping fiddles and grizzled old-man vocals, this is the disc to check out.
The Monroe Brothers -- see artist discography
This fascinating 3-CD set sheds light on the career of country music pioneer Charlie Poole, whose Depression-era recordings helped set the standard for the energy level and professionalism of the new musical style, and who recorded many songs that became hillbilly standards for decades to some. This set is unusual, however, in that it spotlights not only Poole's work, but the recordings of several of his contemporaries, rivals and imitators in the 1920s and '30s, artists such as Arthur Collins, Kelly Harrell, Uncle Dave Macon, Ford Van Eps, and numerous craggy old-time stringbands from the pre-bluegrass, pre-swing, pre-honkytonk era. There's plenty of homespun humor, salty raunchiness, bluesy twang and several dazzling tracks, including whizbang instrumentals like Dave Macon's amazing "Uncle Dave's Beloved Solo." Poole emerges as an immensely charismatic figure, and hearing him in the full context of his times is a treat. If you just want to hear Poole by himself, the old anthologies on the County label will do ya right, but this is a fun, well-thought out collection... Recommended!
A fascinating album in which one of America's supreme folkloric artists drew close the connections between American old-time music and its British and Celtic roots. Travelling through England, Ireland and Scotland on a Fulbright scholarship, Ritchie collected many wonderful performances from the locals, of well-known songs such as "Pretty Polly," "The Cuckoo's Nest" and "Barbara Allen," then contrasted the Old world versions to the ones she learned as a child in Appalachia. This is a great record, which still holds its charm, all these decades later. Recommended!
Hick Music Index