Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mail Order Mountain Music

Bluegrass music has always been ‘down-home’ music whether home is a cabin in the hills or a city row house. Bluegrass music developed along with the migration of rural families to jobs in the factories in the big cities after WWII. The music combined elements of the old-time, country, and hillbilly ballads of their homes in the hills with a sprinkling of popular music, and a dash of jazz from their adopted environs.

It was comforting, familiar music for a group of people far from the green rolling hillsides that had been their home for generations. Bluegrass also provided a common bond for people who had left small rural communities to find themselves crammed into the unfamiliar surroundings of tenement builds, overcrowded slums, and the dark, dirty factories that provided the better paying jobs they left home in search of.

It wasn’t long before other inhabitants of the city heard the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle of their new neighbors being played at picnics and weekend dances. At first the hillbilly music of these rural folk was met with giggles and snickers, but the upbeat tempo and good time melodies soon won over more than a few city-bred admirers. During the post war years bluegrass exploded across the country.

Bluegrass may have its roots in the mountains but its branches now spread around the globe. I was recently pointed to an article in the Orange County (California) Register by Julie Anne Ines. Ms. Ines writes of a lively bluegrass scene in Fountain Valley, California, being driven by four-time Southern California fiddle champion and teacher, Shelah Spiegel (MySpace). Although there are still a few folks who turn their noses up at bluegrass, its history owes as much to Baltimore and Chicago as it does to Berea, Kentucky and Clinch Mountain, Virginia. Read the article here.

Since we are on the subject of bluegrass let me tell you about the latest gem brought to us from our friend Walt’s Cousin Wes and his amazing collection from his home in the hills of southwest, Virginia.

Many riders on the Bus may be familiar with Rebel Records. Rebel may have fallen by the wayside as so many other local record companies did, but thanks to Charles R. Freeland and Bill Carroll and their dedication to bluegrass music, Rebel became one of the frontrunners in bluegrass music throughout much of the 1960s and ‘70s. The success of Rebel can be attributed to the resurgence of interest in bluegrass and the label’s ability to find great artists.

Rebel Records never did have a very wide distribution. Often the records were personally delivered to merchants and left on consignment. Later, as word about Rebel’s wonderful catalog of bluegrass music was passed by word of mouth, mail order sales became an important part of Rebel’s prosperity. When Rebel teamed up with County Sales of Floyd, Virginia sales and exposure increased measurably. County’s monthly newsletter was, and still is, read by bluegrass enthusiasts around the world, your humble driver included.

While still selling most of their catalog by mail order, Rebel Records put together a few “mail order only” records not available in stores. In 1965 Rebel offered a four LP compilation of 70 of their most popular and most requested 45s. The set, known as the "70 Song ‘Per-Inquiry’ Collection" was issued as catalog numbers R1473 through R1476. The records were not identified on the label besides a listing of the tracks and did not come with covers. The records were delivered by mail enclosed only in thin, white paper inner sleeves.

I don’t know for sure how many of these special mail order sets were sold, but there was only one run and when those were sold the catalog numbers were retired. Imagine my astonishment when I was loaned a set of these rare LPs by Walt’s Cousin Wes.

Buzz Busby - Your Red Wagon.mp3

Billy Baker - Shady Valley Special.mp3

King Brothers - Ripple on the Strings.mp3

Franklin County Boys - Dobro On The Ridge.mp3

The Country Gentlemen - The Gentlemen is Blue.mp3

Y’all have a good weekend.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ed,

The following (from your previous blog) got me thinking...

"Our long-time friend, Mr. Beer N. Hockey, started the ball rolling with his nomination of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.” Whoa, “Four Strong Winds” is most often considered a folk song, but it fits the required criteria and Ian Tyson is the personification of country music north of the 49th parallel."

What intrigued me about the comment, and the songs posted, is this: 'When does a song cross the line from folk to country? And what, exactly, is that line?'

For example, I was raised on 'Long Black Veil' rendered very much as a traditional folk song, as in the version by the Dubliners. I never considered it 'country' at all -- until I heard Lefty Frizzel's brilliant take on it.

Another that comes to mind is 'Fair and Tender Ladies.' I'm used to hearing this as a folk song (listen to Terrea Lea sing it, for example). But Rosanne Cash makes it very much country.

I'm sure there are oodles of other examples.

It all raises the fascinating question of just what constitutes 'country'? Is it the phrasing, the note bending, the rythmn or what?

You might, at some point, consider doing a blog on songs that have crossed the line from folk to country (or the reverse) and even back again.

I would be interested, for example, to hear a country song rendered in traditional folk terms. I'm sure many songs would lend themselves to this treatment.

One I can think off, at the top of my head, is Kate Rusby's affecting version of Iris DeMent's 'Our Town'.

To paraphrase the poet: 'Folk to Country is near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide.'

All the best,
Jack (Melbourne)

January 11, 2008 6:50 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I think Jack raises a great question. It's one that I've often asked myself. To define "country" as a style of music, I think you need to draw lines between country and rock, country and pop, and country and folk. All can be difficult lines to draw.

With regard to folk music, I think the biggest difference may be country music's more overt commercial angle. It's a genre long dominated by hitmakers and commercialism. Folk music, I think, is usually either indigenous or traditionalist/rivivalist, but their are some poppy "folk" artists, so maybe that doesn't work either...

Some artists on the line between Folk and Country are Iris Dement (mentioned), Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams (in the old days), Nancy Griffith, Gillian Welch...

One point is clear: If it has a peddle steel guitar, it's country, not folk, rock, or pop.

More questions: Are western swing and bluegrass separate genres, or subdivisions of country music? Does bluegrass fall within the folk category?

Labelling gets very difficult, but of course all problems can be solved with the right combination of hyphens and slashes:

country: Willie Nelson
country-folk: Townes Van Zandt
folk: John Prine
folk/folk-pop: Steve Goodman
folk-pop: Jim Croce
folk-pop/pop: Gordon Lightfoot
pop: Paul Simon
pop/pop-country: Jimmy Buffett
pop-country: John Denver

I realize I'm being silly. Sorry for droning on....

January 12, 2008 2:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not silly, at all, Paul. You raise some great points. I should have mentioned Nancy Griffith in my own post as a case in point.

I have a CD of Nancy Griffith songs and I never know whether to label them as 'country' or 'folk'.

An example of genre-straddling is that provided by the master himself, Bob Dylan. 'To Ramona' is very much country (to my mind) while other songs are purely folk. He seems to genre-cross (including rock, blues and bluegrass) with ease.

Jack (Melbourne)

January 12, 2008 2:22 AM  
Anonymous Ray said...

There’s a local group around here (I live in South East England) who specialise in bluegrass versions of songs you wouldn’t usually expect to hear done that way. There’s a fine version of the Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ for example, which works just right in the idiom, but the ones that always seems to stir most interest are their takes on things like on Motorhead’s ‘Ace Of Spades’ and Queen’s ‘Fat Bottom Girls’. You’d think this would be completely wrong, but it isn’t. On the one hand this supports a point of view that whether a song is ‘country’ or not, is as much about treatment as performance, but it’s also a reminder of how much rock music, even at extremes like heavy metal, depends on its blues and country roots.

By the way, that Dave Landers songs is a real killer!

January 12, 2008 6:32 AM  
Anonymous dan said...

I think Ray has hit it on the nose. It's all about treatment. Hayseed Dixie can take a rock song and treat it as bluegrass, and it becomes a bluegrass song. But here's a brain-tickler. Name some traditional bluegrass songs that have become legitimate top-40 hits. Sorry, Ed, for highjacking your site. Mea culpa.

January 12, 2008 7:54 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Dueling Banjos?

January 12, 2008 10:42 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Flatt & Scruggs had several crossover hits in the 1950s that made it to the pop charts. "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" (the Beverly Hillbillies theme song) became the first bluegrass song to go to number one on the pop charts. The Scruggs’ standard "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" (first recorded in 1948) climbed the pop charts in 1967, when it was used as the theme song for the popular movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Elvis Presley's covers of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" or "Little Cabin On The Hill".
Roy Acuff & His Smoky Mountain Boys’ “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, covered by both Elvis and Willie Nelson.

Although more in the old-time style than bluegrass, Grayson & Whitter’s classic “Tom Dooley” was a top 40 hit for the Kingston Trio.

January 13, 2008 4:19 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Jack, Paul, Ray, and Dan

What an excellent discussion! You have all presented great points. Jack, your comment "It all raises the fascinating question of just what constitutes 'country'?" is a wonderfull question, one that I had to ask myself. As Paul points out, many songs can cross the boudaries or just blur the preconcieved notion of what country is. If we are to hypenate the genre and break it down to sub-genres, would it not make sense to break those down further into different styles of sub-genres?

Ray, we have a few bands in Richmond that play "out-of-style" also. Most notable is the very talented old-time string band Whiskey Rebellion, that does wonderful string band renditions of 60s rock including a killer version of "Purple Haze" intertwined with "Orange Blossom Special"!!!

My head is reeling! This will require more space than the comment section. I will post my further thoughts on this subject Monday. Let's pick up the conversation there.

January 13, 2008 8:56 PM  

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