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Benny Thomasson

Legendary Texas Fiddler – 2005 (County)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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CDs by Benny Thomasson

Despite all that the fiddle contest circuit has done for the evolution and dissemination of old time music, the musical traditions that it fostered are still relatively underheard. To the uninitiated, the recordings of Texas fiddle pioneer Benny Thomasson collected here may sound peculiar. Unlike most bluegrass and old time music, the focus is not on the ensemble - this is a soloist's game - and the tension fired by the give and take between band members is replaced with very clear soloist/background battle lines.

Fortunately, Thomasson is such a compelling musical mind that these 20 tracks, recorded between 1966 and 1969, without ever testing the listener's patience. Though Thomasson's heyday was in the '30s and '40s, he continued to win fiddle contests well into the '60s. And while the fire of youth may be a little absent from these cuts, it is replaced with a delicacy and deliberateness that can only be brought on by experience.

Thomasson's venue was the fiddle contest, and he structured his performances accordingly. The idea of playing to the judges' tastes (as opposed to just picking up a fiddle and playing a tune as one would in informal settings) was just one of Thomasson's revolutionary introductions. Even more important was the way he transformed traditional fiddle tunes into a series of intricate variations and inventions. In his illuminating notes, fiddler Mark O'Connor compares Benny to Bach, and it is by no means off the mark.

While most of these cuts were recorded in a studio, two bonus tracks were recorded live at a Texas fiddle contest (which he won), and showcase the infectious combination of musicianship and competition that brought out the best in Thomasson. Solid sound, wonderful photos and annotation, and a generous selection of tunes makes this an essential document of one the fiddle's most remarkable innovators.