Grayson County Daredevils,
Staggerin' Blues
(Mountain Roads, 2013)

Old Buck,
Old Buck
(Tin Halo, 2013)

"Old time is what the folk call folk music," the late Mike Seeger used to say. In the Upper Midwest, where I live, "old time" means accordions and polka sounds rooted in the experience of German, Scandinavian and Polish settlers in the latter 19th century. In the context of folk revivalism, however, "old time" is a specifically Southern music performed by small string bands, with a repertoire drawn from a range of traditional and popular sources. Bluegrass, a commercial form of country music, grew out of it, jump-started by Bill Monroe's creativity and imagination.

As I've had occasion to note here before, old-time string bands aren't hard to find these days. Even the lost tradition of African-American string bands has been resurrected from the dead and ably restored by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Ebony Hillbillies. Some young bands offer modern takes on the tradition, while others stick closer to the traditional approach.

The Grayson County Daredevils aren't exactly a "young band" -- members Jerry Correll, Kyle Dean Smith and Tom Mylet are well advanced into middle age -- and they're not out to set the world on fire. They just want to play the old music the right way, and they accomplish that with technical precision and warmth of spirit. Fiddle tunes predominate, and the Daredevils are sufficiently versed in the tradition that they're mostly able to eschew the warhorses. The medley of "Cluck Old Hen/Bonaparte's Retreat," however, feels unexpectedly fresh. Smith learned directly from the masters, prominently Fred Cockerham and George Pegram, in southwestern Virginia's fertile soil. Correll moved there long ago and remains, playing with the Wolfe Brothers String Band and never neglecting his education.

Of the generous 19 selections, three are songs, all traditional, all nicely chosen. "Katy Cline" must be the first old-time song I ever heard. I've never tired of it, and the Daredevils' version reminds me why. The sweet, sentimental and obscure "Little Brown Hand" sounds like a piece traceable to a minstrel show. The rarely recorded "Spring of '65" tells the story of a spontaneous gathering in the mountains where whiskey and music flowed freely. The Civil War is never mentioned, but that bloody conflict ended in April 1865, and I wonder if the song began as a celebration of the dawning peace.

Where the Daredevils focus their efforts on creating rich melodies, Old Buck, which is a younger band, traffics, at least in part, in the harder driving, harder sung stuff. The eponymous CD opens with a tough-minded reading of "Chilly Winds," a "Lonesome Road Blues" variant usually associated with Wade Ward. Riley Baugus, who grew up in the North Carolina mountains, delivers the fierce lyrics in a fierce voice. It's followed, though, by E.C. Ball's gloomy end-times vision ("When the fire comes down from heaven / And the blood shall fill the sea..."), sung in sweetly but suitably downbeat fashion by Sabra Guzman (Old Buck's bassist) with harmonies by Debra Clifford (guitar) and Emily Schaad (fiddle). Except for the carried-home-by-Jesus part, it's sort of the mountain-music "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

Most of the content, as with the Daredevils, is fiddle tunes done in lively traditional style. There's a deliciously menacing arrangement of the rake's lament "False Hearted Lover's Blues" (picked up from Dock Boggs, with Baugus' characteristically not-for-the-weak-of-heart vocal). The familiar "Willow Garden," among the more popular of Appalachian murder ballads (even the Everly Brothers recorded it), is affectingly arranged and sung by Guzman backed by Clifford's harmony. Hearing it once more, I wonder again: why do ballads about such awful behavior have such pretty tunes?

Like country blues and other downhome forms, old-time music done by the right people never wears out its welcome. The Grayson County Daredevils and Old Buck can darken my doorstep anytime.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 September 2013

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