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Saturday, August 22, 2009


Benton Flippen & the Smokey Valley Boys

This morning I wanted to play old-time string bands on the radio show. Brien Fain won Galax again this year in old-time banjo. Last week when 4 musicians were here in the house talking music-making memories, Robb mentioned something about a time he was playing guitar with Brien Fain and Wiley Mayo, fiddler. That flashed in my mind, because it was Robb several years ago who told me about the cassette tape of Rock Mountain Ramblers. I bought the cassette, recorded by Bobby Patterson in Galax, 1997, loved it, but never played it on radio because the tape player there is messed up and I don't like fooling with it. Then Bobby put Rock Mountain Ramblers on a 2cd set with everything they recorded in the session to make the cassette.

Listening to Rock Mountain Ramblers, the first of four bands in the hour, I was thinking of Robb playing rhythm guitar with Wiley Mayo and Brien Fain, a little bit gaga seeing in my head Robb playing all-out hard-driving old-time, thinking: WOW. Of course, I knew he had it in him, as he'd played rhythm with Southern Pride so many years, a hard-driving old-time band. It was a reminder of how good Robb really is with a guitar. Larry McPeak played rhythm guitar with Rock Mountain Ramblers. Larry plays bass with the McPeak Brothers, a good bluegrass band from the Wytheville area, and bass with the VW Boys, a bluegrass band with Tim White's banjo based in Bristol.

For ye who don't know anything about mountain old-time music, think of electric hardcore punk rock, like the Clash, the Ramones, the Sex-Pistols, acoustic without vocals. it's hard-driving acoustic music with so much energy it doesn't need to be plugged in. It's the same energy that became rock and roll when the instruments went electric. It was something like a leap in consciousness, playing the same thing a new way. In the old days the songs were the familiar tunes of the day that were traditional tunes everybody played. It's how you play the tune that is important, like jazz in the 50s playing Broadway standards, every musician his own take on a traditional favorite like How High the Moon.

Old-time tunes are the traditional standards of the time before electricity, fiddle tunes like Shortnin Bread, Turkey In The Straw, Forked Deer, Lee Highway Blues, Polly Put The Kettle On, Cacklin Hen, Wreck Of Old 97. Train 45 is the fiddle virtuoso piece in old-time like Orange Blossom Special (another train song) is in bluegrass, and Free Bird in rock. In both the old-time tunes, the fiddlers play their versions of train sounds and train rhythms, and find notes chickens make in Cacklin Hen and Chicken Reel. Old-time was squared-dance music. We think square dancing boring now.

In elementary school I could barely tolerate it when we had to learn square dancing. I hated it. But, if I'd learned it when that's what the grownups did in the culture of the time, I'd have loved it, growing up watching the older people having such a ball and wanting to get in there and do it too. It was lively dancing. Now, the dancers tend to walk through the motions. In olden days they were dancing as all-out as the banjo was a-cluckin. It was a dance then. Picture then as now, the young people in teens, twenties and thirties blowing it out on Saturday night after working hard all week, the men into a little white liquor between dances, the girls twittering over the guys, temperatures rising, the dance floor keeping time with the band. The older folks in there among them, keeping up, dance a more subtle, graceful style of the same thing that takes less energy. They used to do all that kicking in circles too.

The great 60s lead guitar heroes, Jimmy Page, David Gilmore, Eric Clapton, were doing with electric guitar what the old-time fiddler does with a fiddle. The fiddle is the lead instrument in an old-time band. Benton Flippen, Thornton Spencer, Richard Bowman can get all kinds of notes out of a fiddle, creating the same awe in their listeners as the guitar boys did their fans. Much of the pleasure of listening to old-time is hearing the styles of various fiddlers and how they approach certain tunes.

Individuality is the core of old-time music. Every fiddler must play his own way. It's the same with banjo. In the old days you had to figure out an instrument, and how you figured it out had a lot to do with developing your style. Young kids now figure out an electric guitar in the bedroom with headphones. It was the same fascination for a teenage boy then to learn fiddle and/or banjo and play square dances as for today's teenager to aspire to rock star. The motivation then was the same as it is now: chicks like musicians.

The show this morning was a great deal of fun. At the beginning I likened what we were about to hear to Galax on Saturday night when the old-time bands are a-layin it to it. Among the 4 fiddlers heard today, Wiley Mayo, Eddie Bond, Benton Flippen and Richard Bowman. I wouldn't want to be a judge at a fiddler's convention to pick between them. Brien Fain played banjo with Wiley Mayo, Josh Ellis, new to New Ballard's Branch Bogtrotters, played banjo with Eddie Bond, Roger Wilson played the banjo for Benton Flippen, and Marsha Bowman Todd played the banjo with her daddy Richard on the fiddle and her mama Barbara on the bass, the Slate Mountain Ramblers. A remark I've heard several musicians make, If old-time aint got drive, it aint got nothin, drifted into my mind throughout the hour. We had drive in abundance this morning in the county's airwaves.

Saturday morning at 10
WCOK 1060 AM Sparta

If you want to hear some good mountain music, this is where you hear it. You can pick it up almost everywhere in the county. When you spend time in the mountains, no matter how little, it would only be enriching to you to tap into some music without judging, without prefacing it with, I don't like banjos, I don't like country fiddles, it's so old-fashioned it's ancient. Just let it be what it is, whether you like it or not is of no importance, and to hear it as the soul of these mountains, a reminder that there is a unique culture here that is not a lesser version of the culture you came here from. Every weekend there's old-time and bluegrass bands playing in various towns around us and in Sparta. There's the Crouse House in Sparta on Monday evenings, the Jubilee Tuesday and Saturday nights, and every county around us has places where traditional music is being made. Jams are all around where people are welcome to sit and listen. They're all safe. Little kids love old-time music.

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