Elkville String Band,
Over the Mountain
(Mountain Roads, 2008)

The Elkville String Band blurs the boundaries that ordinarily separate old-time mountain music from early bluegrass and traditional country, which is to say that it sounds as if it were an Appalachian outfit contemporary with Hank Williams, not with Jimmie Rodgers. In other words, like something you would have heard from an acoustic North Carolina band in the 1940s.

That's also to say that the ESB doesn't sound like the New Lost City Ramblers and Troublesome Creek on one side or Uncle Earl and Crooked Still on the other. Put another way, ESB practices neither revival traditionalism nor revival modernism. In fact, "revival" doesn't apply in its usual sense: self-conscious urban musicians carrying on like rural folk.

ESB could hardly claim roots more authentic than the ones it possesses. After all, the fiddler is Drake Walsh, son of banjoist Dock Walsh, who in the early days of what eventually would be called country music recorded both on his own (e.g., the classic "Goin' Back to Jericho," cut in 1926) and in the trio Carolina Tar Heels with the great Clarence Ashley (known for "The House Carpenter," "Little Sadie," "Coo Coo Bird"), later mentor to Doc Watson.

From these first-generation commercial recordings of rural music, later folk singers and faux-hillbilly bands would derive whole repertoires, often imitating the originals note by note, flubbed lyric by flubbed lyric. Since those old 78s have been reissued on LPs (starting with Harry Smith's influential Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952) and CDs in the many hundreds, rendering many of the revival efforts superfluous -- thus, in due course, a new generation of young old-time reinventors (all paradoxes intentional).

To many, "old-time music" in its purest form is a phenomenon caught by commercial record labels after they figured out -- by accident -- that there was a sizable market for rural music. By the 1930s, for all kinds of reasons (including the desire to collect royalties from copyrights on original -- as opposed to public-domain -- material), rural music started taking on the character of pop, as opposed to folk, music with a Southern accent, which is the definition of "country music" to this day.

The authentically rural ESB, which works out of Wilkes County, North Carolina, captures a moment in the history of real mountain music, but one perhaps 15 or 20 years on from the golden age of the 1920s. That moment was just before the appearance of bluegrass, essentially invented in Bill Monroe's band in the mid to latter 1940s.

By that time stringband repertoire consisted of venerable fiddle tunes, genuine Appalachian folk songs, sacred tunes from various traditions and Grand Ole Opry hits. Backward-looking Opry acts such as Uncle Dave Macon, Stringbean and Grandpa Jones, comic performers whose outlandish hick personas tended to distract attention from their genuine musical gifts, were also an influence, both in material and in faster-than-lightning mountain banjo picking. Listen to the ESB's "Cindy" -- on which I first thought there were two banjos; there's only one -- for an example.

For a Grand Ole Opry hit, there's Elton Britt's endearingly cornball World War II epic "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" (co-composed by pioneering country songwriter Bob Miller as "Shelby Darnell"), in which a crippled mountain lad pleads with his draft board to take him anyway, so that he can "help to bring the Axis down a peg."

Except for "Cindy" and "Jesse James," both done with charm and verve, most of the songs and tunes are not excessively familiar. I know the North Carolina outlaw ballad "Otto Wood" mostly from Doc Watson's recording, but the ESB's version is simply wonderful, sung in engagingly straightforward fashion by guitarist Herb Key and propelled by Jeff Michael's melodic clawhammer banjo. Other highlights include the title tune, composed by Uncle Dave Macon and ending gloriously with Michael's uninhibited Swiss yodel. (Once, sitting in a bar, I overheard an older woman, deep into her cups, declare, "The trouble with the world is that nobody yodels anymore." She was right. And if you wonder what she meant, here's your chance.)

Heart songs, ballads, hymns, gospel numbers, fiddle tunes antique and newly made -- this is pretty much my definition of the stuff of happiness. Another definition is the chance to hear lovingly fashioned music that sounds at once old and fresh. Hasten, my friends, to Elkville String Band and Over the Mountain.

review by
Jerome Clark

9 January 2009

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