Mac Traynham & Shay Garriock, |
Turkey in the Mountain
(Southern Mountain Melodies, 2009)
Show somebody a banjo and fiddle, and if the instruments are played in a recognizably Southern style, that person will almost surely pronounce the result "bluegrass." Chances are it isn't. Very much an ensemble music, bluegrass is hardly ever played without the companionship of guitar, bass, mandolin and (in more modern bands) dobro. Besides, authentic Appalachian roots notwithstanding, bluegrass as such was invented in the mid-1940s in the context of the commercial country-music industry. Banjo-and-fiddle duets, however, were playing in America in the 18th century.
If you want to press the point, you could argue that the music Mac Traynham & Shay Garriock play -- and play very well indeed -- on Turkey in the Mountain is not even "old time," assuming you define it as the stringband music that comprised the first generation of white Southern recorded vernacular music in the 1920s. Much of that music, the label aside, was looking forward. In the context of his time and place, Charlie Poole, the most famous "oldtime" musician and band leader of them all, was a modernist, as much a pop performer as a folk artist.
Traynham & Garriock, carriers of a tradition older than old time, preserve Appalachian music as it was when it was essentially a recreational pursuit, suited to private and public entertainment, conservative in sound and temperament, warm and familiar to those who heard it, the property of amateurs because professionals -- those who made a living at it -- were rare. Those who heard it were almost exclusively Southern and rural. Few academic folk-music scholars, then focused on the ballads of England and Scotland, were even aware of it. Most, in fact, were convinced that the New World had no folk-music traditions of its own.
They couldn't have been more mistaken, as we all know. The music eventually got "discovered" in the early 20th century, and several urban folk revivals since have made mountain songs, tunes and styles available to all who want to hear them. The first time I was exposed to them decades ago, on a clawhammer-banjo collection on County Records, I thought for a few startled moments that I had died and ascended to Heaven. I wondered if the experience of hearing something so beautiful and -- to my Midwestern ears -- otherworldly as Fred Cockerham's terse yet multitudes-containing reading of "Roustabout" might be too much for heart and soul to bear. The best of this music, and Turkey is about nothing if not the best of it, still gives me that strange feeling of being shaken and exhilarated at the same time.
Every one of Turkey's 22 cuts comes, I am informed in a note from Garriock (the fiddler here), "directly from or via field recordings of various old timers of southwest Virginia and western North Carolina." Most are instrumentals, though the songs aren't skimped on. The material is chosen with exquisite care and flawless taste. Much of it is not widely known; even the more familiar cuts, such as the fiddle tune "Bonaparte's Retreat" and the ballad "Wreck of the Old 97," are done in arrangements so striking (and I mean in a deeply traditional sense) that it may almost slip your mind you've heard them a time or two before. The instrumental pieces remind you that these were tunes largely meant to be danced to.
Though not native-born folk, the two have lived in rural Virginia (Traynham) and North Carolina (Garriock) most of their adult lives, immersing themselves in the Blue Ridge's musical culture. If once this was somebody else's music in their hands, it ceased being that a long time ago. If you desire authenticity, it's indisputably here. But in the end what matters is that however they got to them, they have done magnificently by these true old sounds.
1 August 2009
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