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King Wilkie goes for broke

By John Lupton, May 2004

Page 2...

Part of Hartford's band that day, as he was throughout much of Hartford's career, was Bob Carlin, known not only for his own solo banjo and vocal albums, but as an archivist, historian and producer as well.

And, as it turned out, it was Carlin behind the glass producing "Broke."

Burgess recalls that first encounter with him, though.

"They were telling a story about Dan Emmett, who was, back in the 19th century, like a minstrel songwriter. He wrote the lyrics for the song 'Dixie.' So (Carlin) went into a little spiel about that. That's actually where (Kenyon College) is, where Dan Emmett was from, out in Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Bob) told that story, and Ted and I and a couple other kids from the school cheered and stood up, and he remembered it years later when we brought that up."

The material on "Broke" certainly delves deep into classic bluegrass and country fare, from Jimmie Davis ("Where The Old Red River Flows") to Jimmie Rodgers ("Blue Yodel #7"), but both Burgess and Pitney demonstrate a deft touch at creating original music that has that "old sound." "Goodbye So Long", for example, is a Burgess song that echoes the "Stanley Sound."

"I think there's a weird harmony on it. I don't know where I came up with that. It's pretty much a straight-ahead, Stanley-type traditional country song. The lyrics, I don't know if they sound modern or not, but I guess that's what I was thinking about when I wrote that."

Pitney's "Lee & Paige," which emulates the classic country "death ballads" is, Burgess says, the band's tribute to the tradition of "brother duets."

"John, who's sort of the lead singer in the band, he's really into the (brother acts), like the Stanley Brothers for one, and he's taught us a whole lot about that duet harmony, but definitely we listened to a lot of the Monroe Brothers."

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of "Broke," though, is the incorporation of the declining art of yodeling, and they take a shot at it not only on Rodgers' "Blue Yodel," but on "Sparkling Brown Eyes" (known by some as "Ramshackle Shack") as well. Although the publicity material for the album notes that both Webb Pierce and Wanda Jackson recorded hit versions of the song, bluegrass fans of long standing know it as a signature tune of the late New England bluegrass legend, Joe Val, and Burgess acknowledges that the King Wilkie version goes directly back to Val's.

"I haven't even heard any other recording of that song, actually, other than the Joe Val one, and we definitely listened to that. I mean, there's only two (Joe Val) albums I have, I think that's all that's available on Rounder, so he's definitely one of our favorites. I think we heard Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass at one festival. They made a huge impression on me and on all of us, and we saw...where they were playing another festival in Arcadia (Md.), it was going to have the Paisleys... and we just ended up talking to people at that festival, and some of them were saying, 'Joe Val, you've got to listen to Joe Val.'"

And, in fact, it is Burgess himself who does the yodeling, though he admits he's got a ways to go before feeling like he's got a firm grip on it.

"I'm still learning how to do it. I don't know, just imitating records, I guess. It's kind of a weird thing, I'm learning that it's - I think the way that I did it on the record is all wrong. It's not really a singing thing, it's an esophagus (thing). It's like a break in the voice. It's tricky. It's not like singing."

Yodeling in country music, of course, more or less begins with Rodgers, and Burgess again credits Monroe as the link.

"Only as sort of a 'filter-through' from Monroe and all of the other bluegrass guys, but I have a Jimmie Rodgers CD that I listen to now, and he's the best yodeler of anybody. I think Bill Monroe recorded that 'Blue Yodel # 7', and I think Dave Freeman is the one who played that for us. I hadn't heard anyone do that, so that was kind of neat."

Dave Freeman, a legend in his own right since founding County Records some 40 years ago, followed that by developing Rebel Records into what is, along with Rounder and Sugar Hill, one of the "Big Three" among bluegrass-oriented labels. In the pre-internet era Freeman's retail outlet, County Sales was the primary source for both classic and new bluegrass and old time music recordings. For thousands of fans of these hard-to-get records, not only was County just about the only place to get them, but the regular County newsletters were highly respected for the reviews, most of them written by Freeman himself, that were stripped of the usual sugarcoating. Good or bad, Dave Freeman called 'em as he saw 'em.

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