Kentucky Mountain Music
Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, Fri., April 4, 2003
Kentucky Mountain Music(Yazoo) This 7-CD box set is billed as a companion to The Music of Kentucky, Vols. 1 & 2, issued by Yazoo in 1995. It contains studio recordings and Library of Congress selections cut in the Twenties and Thirties and in view of the richness and variety of its contents, becomes an instant landmark project. The forms differ widely, as do the ages of the performers; fiddler Joe Mangrum was 75 when he cut his selections, and his work gives us an idea of what earlier styles sounded like. Nor was he isolated, as mountain acts are frequently portrayed, and in fact, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. Other men here performed on radio and were in contact with each other. Their music was alive and growing and made an impact throughout the nation. At the same time, their so-called mountain music encompassed a wide variety of styles: ragtime, breakdowns, ballads, religious forms, and waltzes. Some of the great 20th-century pioneers appear here: outstanding fiddlers, banjo players, and guitarists. At times, they came together in all-star groups, such as the Burnett & Rutherford duo, violinist Leonard Rutherford and banjoist/guitarist Richard Burnett, peerless instrumentalists and both fine singers. Dig the work of fiddler Andy Palmer, heard with Jimmy Johnson's band, for its driving, lilting quality. Another excellent violinist is Jim Booker, who was black but played in an integrated band -- Taylor's Kentucky Boys. Interracial string groups weren't common in Kentucky, but they weren't unheard of either. Plenty of superb banjoists turn up, too, including Walter Williams and Buell Kazee, both of whom employed the claw hammer style. Kentucky mountain acts featured plenty of close interplay, and some outstanding family bands are represented. Among the best was the Crockett family group, which moved to California, appeared on a daily network radio show, and performed in the RKO vaudeville circuit. By then, country music was firmly established in the U.S. when Alan Lomax began his celebrated Kentucky field recordings in 1937. They helped popularize the genre, but it was already on its way to becoming enormously successful.