This review covers:
One of the joys of old-time music lies in its shared repertoire. Out of a relatively small body of material comes a wealth of interpretations. Each performer illuminates a slightly different sector of an old chestnut like "Sugar Babe" or "John Hardy." That same joy is present - on an even more revelatory level - on the final volumes of County Record's wonderful series of Tommy Jarrell reissues.
On volumes 2 and 3, we not only get to hear multiple interpretations of several numbers: we hear Jarrell investigate the tunes on different instruments, recorded 20 years apart.
It is a magical banjo player who can incorporate the most off-kilter syncopations into a smooth, supple drive. That is just what Jarrell - better known as a fiddler - does on Volume 3. Four tunes featured here are also on Volume 2 (one of his last recordings), in full string-band versions with Jarrell leading on fiddle and vocals. Surprisingly, the later recordings are the more raucous: the fiddle is featured primarily as a rhythm instrument, and Jarrell sets the pace beautifully.
Volume 4 of the series is also a string-band record, only a little more laid-back than its follow-up. Jarrell's fiddling and singing are typically powerful, plowing through a delectable (and mostly instrumental) mix of old-time dance music. But also worth noting are the exemplary playing of his sidemen, Andy Cahan and Chester McMillan. Cahan's claw-hammer banjo provides especially keen rhythmic drive, while guitarist McMillan subtly fills out the harmony. On top of this, Jarrell offers variation upon variation on such war-horses as "Lonesome Road Blues" and "Walking in My Sleep." An occasional vocal creates a welcome contrast to the relentless fiddling.
An essential item for old-time fans, County's Jarrell collection is wonderfully packaged. Each CD has lush annotation, revealing photos, and moving testimonials. The only complaint (and we old-time fans are pretty used to this at this point) is that the disks are each quite brief - under 40 minutes. The set would have fit very comfortably on two disk, but separate disks do maintain the individuality of the sessions. As a tribute to a mighty pillar of the old-time community, The Legacy of Tommy Jarrell is exemplary.