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Various Artists

Old-Time Music of West Virginia: Volumes One and Two – 2000 (County)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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West Virginia's enviable geographic position made it a unique musical crossroads. Any tradition - be it black, white, northern, or southern - was fair game for musical inspiration. For that reason, the defining characteristic of old time string music of West Virginia was sheer variety. This two-CD sampling proudly reinforces that. A unique and compelling collection, these releases reveal an old time tradition extending far beyond the banjo-fiddle sounds typically considered the backbone of the genre.

This is not to say there is not a healthy dose of two-finger-banjo driven numbers. The Fruit Jar Guzzler's unleash a rollicking take on "Stack-O-Lee" on Volume One, also features the Corn Cob Crusher's banjo-propelled "Ragtime Annie." But again on One are more subtle and unusual performances. The foundation of the Tweedy Brothers' "Home Brew Rag" is a tinkling ragtime piano, an instrument often neglected in old time music - despite the fact that ragtime piano music was a key influence on the rhythms that permeate all old-time musics. Parlor-style guitar duets are also strongly represented - a style more gentle and controlled, but still strongly influenced by the blues.

Volume 2 (the two disks are sold separately) is a suitable follow-up. Frank Hutchison's slide guitar (played in the lap/Hawaiian style) kicks "Worried Blues" into high gear. Guitarist/vocalist Dick Justice's version of "Cocaine" is a revelatory interpretation of that old-time standard. In fact, the joy of this collection is in its mix of familiar tunes (like "Sally Goodin" or "Cripple Creek") with more obscure compositions. Ditto its good balance of renown old-time performers (Hutchison, Blind Alfred Reed) and lesser-knowns. Consistently strong, great sounding and flawlessly annotated (though often repeating passages in the liner notes, since some performers appear on both volumes), this is an ideal introduction not only to West Virginia's strain of string-band music, but to old time music as a whole.