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Saturday, June 27, 2009

PAUL BROWN BANJO



For all two of you reading this who listen to NPR news on the radio, you've heard Paul Brown read the news on the hour in the mornings. Paul has been with NPR for a long time. He is also an old-time banjo picker who comes to the mountains every year for fiddlers conventions from the DC area, lived here for a few years back in the 70s when he was soaking up the mountain sound in banjo picking, learning from pickers in our area. He's also picked quite a lot with MtAiry fiddler (and banjo picker) Benton Flippen. On Benton's Rounder album NEW TIME / OLD TIME, Paul Brown plays on two of the songs. Two of the only three commercial recordings available with Esker Hutchins of Dobson playing fiddle are on that album too.
Last year an album was released of Benton Flippen and his band The Smokey Valley Boys recorded by WPAQ in MtAiry, 1984. Shortly before this time Benton was fiddler with THE CAMP CREEK BOYS, a high-energy old-time band of the Round Peak sound around Low Gap. Kyle Creed also played fiddle. It's one of the great old-time albums, up there with Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed's JUNE APPLE, Whitetop Mountain Band's BULL PLUS 10%, Fred McBride's STONE MOUNTAIN OLD TIME STRING BAND, the league of good as it gets.
AN EVENING AT WPAQ, 1984, by Benton Flippen and the Smokey Valley Boys is in that league. Paul Brown plays the banjo in the place of Kyle Creed, who had died by this time. Benton carried on the Camp Creek Boys minus Creed as the Smokey Valley Boys. Just the company Paul keeps on this album tells you the man can pick. When you hear it, you know for certain he can pick. This is music of northwest North Carolina, specifically Surry County, just across the county line to the east. Benton Flippen has played at the Jubilee in Sparta for several years. Closing in on 90, Benton is still winning fiddlers conventions every year.
Paul Brown recorded a solo album in 2006, RED CLAY COUNTRY. He plays the banjo with a band of his friends. Young fiddler from southern PA, Matt Brown, plays mountain fiddle awfully well. Paul aslo plays fiddle on some of the tunes. It's definitely mountain music made by somebody whose soul is in these mountains. Paul plays banjo on Matt's solo, LONE PRAIRIE. Another good album of mountain music.
I've been playing WAY DOWN IN NORTH CAROLINA, recorded 1996 by Rounder, with Paul Brown and Mike Seeger (Pete Seeter's half brother). Only the two of them playing different instruments on the different songs. At this moment they're playing LITTLE MAGGIE. Mike Seeger played fiddle with the New Lost City Ramblers from 1958-62. New York City boys playing mountain music as an old-time band such that lovers of old-time music respect them.
Mike Seeger has traveled these mountains as a folklorist throughout his life. He field-recorded old-time musicians all up and down the mountains. Recorded too much to list, but I have to mention he plays autoharp on Ralph Stanley's album of Carter Family songs, A DISTANT LAND TO ROAM, plays it beautifully. John Cohen, who played banjo with New Lost City Ramblers, has traveled up and down the mountains field-recording too, mostly interested in banjo pickers. Both Seeger and Cohen have recorded a large number of musicians in our area. Cohen made three beautiful b&w films of old-time musicians that are collected together on a dvd called THAT HIGH LONESOME SOUND. Cohen has a book of b&w photographs. He's another contributor to the legacy of old-time music in our mountains. These are people who know old-time music inside out. They live it with their entire lives.
I was keeping the volume down considering Jr was in his bed resting. He doesn't stay out of the bed for very long at a time any more. He's worn out all the time. A little bit ago he came pushing his walker in here, eyes lit up, saying, "That's good music!" He wanted to sit in here awhile to hear it better. I was a bit struck, because he doesn't like old-time much. The only music Jr ever wants to hear is bluegrass. Other musics are "just a racket" to his ears. He listened with much interest, which surprised me, still does, but less as I think about it. It's the musicianship that siezed and held his attention. It's musicianship that holds his interest in bluegrass. Some months ago I was listening to Benton Flippen at WPAQ when I first found the copy, feeling a little apologetic to Jr playing something I was afraid grated on his ears. He liked it. Liked it a lot. Again, it's the musicianship and he knew the older guys in the band, made music with them many years ago.
Paul and Mike don't make you feel like you need to get up and run to the kitchen to flatfoot by commanding your attention to the exclusion of all else like a lot of old-time tunes do. The musicianship is so fine and arrangements of the songs in new ways that are still the old ways so masterful, both the front of the mind and back of the mind enjoy it. Though it's all about sound, I found a stillness in it that I can only think of as meditative. A very comfortable stillness. It's like the music is dancing on the silence behind it. When the phone rings I don't feel like I have to turn it down, because whoever is on the other end will enjoy what they hear. It is music you can listen to while doing something else, and hear it as well as listening to it in the foreground, like I'm doing now. My attention never leaves it though my attention goes other places simultaneously. Every note rewards the listening. It's also accessible to ears not of the mountains, which an awful lot of mountain music is not.
The song that makes me stop to listen is Little Maggie. This is the 4th time I've heard it since the writing began, and I have to give it all attention every time. Beautiful rendering of that great old-time song Ralph Stanley more or less adopted. Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham did it their way. Grayson and Whitter did too. It's one of those old-time songs that continues to stay fresh down through time and however many times I hear it.
Paul Brown has a website worth visiting:
A good place to find mountain music on cd:
County is the definitive place to find mountain music, located in Floyd VA and Charlottesville VA. What they don't have isn't available, just about. Everything I've ordered from County has been in the mailbox just a few days later, surprisingly quick every time. They treat you right with prices and shipping too.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this column greatly TJ. I love old-time music and you are so full of knowledge on it. I am taking notes on everyone you mentioned and checking out the website link right now.
    thanks! (keep it comin'!)
    Jason

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  2. Very welcome. You won't believe what you see at County.

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