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Various Artists

Nashville: The Early String Bands, Volumes 1 & 2 – 2000 (County)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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Is there any end to County Record's vast well of fine old-tyme music? Hope not. These 38 cuts form one of the most thematically interesting collections of old-tyme music in recent memory: a tribute to the first generation of southern hillbilly radio. A good chunk of the artists represented here made their reputation playing on WSM Nashville's barn dance program (eventually billed as the Grand Ole Opry), where honcho George D. Hay discovered that listeners preferred the rugged strains of rural stringbands to the sound of more sophisticated, urban musics.

Dating mostly from the late twenties into the mid-thirties, these performances mark an interesting period in popular country music: the era of the amateur. So new was the demand for this invigorating music that few professionals musicians existed. Instead, the Opry broadcast talent that had fermented in absence of commercial influence - which explains the intriguing idiosyncrasies of the earlier music collected here. The later music included here shows some signs of sweetening, but is still relatively rustic.

Opry legends Deford Bailey (dubbed the "Harmonica Wizard" for his still remarkably dexterous harp-huffin') and Uncle Dave Macon (performing in solo, duo and full-band contexts) are amply represented, and rightly so. But equally intriguing are the since-forgotten figures. Sam McGee's "Chevrolet Blues" is a fascinating piece of white blues, accompanied by virtuostic six-string banjo work. Harmonica is a surprisingly prominent force, and the twin-harp-fronted Crook Brothers String Band makes a great case for the small woodwind's locomotive power on "Going Across the Sea."

Picking highlights is, in the end, futile. These collections (both equally rich and should be purchased together for maximum impact) are wonderfully chosen, well-annotated by historian Charles K. Wolfe and sound great. With the Opry now 75 years old, do yourself a favor and discover the noble roots of this famed institution.