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David Davis and the Warrior River Boys

Didn't He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole – 2018 (Rounder)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by David Davis and the Warrior River Boys

A native of the same region of Alabama that produced the Louvin Brothers, David Davis has for more than three decades built a solid reputation as a devotee and standard bearer for what is generally termed "Monroe-style," "traditional" bluegrass, but as he points out in the liner notes of this collection of classic American tunes, Bill Monroe's introduction of the music that eventually came to be known as bluegrass was something of a progressive and radical departure.

Throughout the years that he has been leading the Warrior River Boys, Davis has been mindful of charting his own course and developing his own sound without slavishly copying those who came before him. His connection to Monroe, the "Father of Bluegrass," is more than just as a fan, though - his uncle, Cleo Davis, was the first sideman Monroe hired after splitting with his brother, Charlie Monroe, and forming the Blue Grass Boys.

As he and his banjo player, Robert Montgomery, went about producing and recording this sampling of 14 songs from the catalog of Charlie Poole, Davis came to view Poole as the "Grandfather of Bluegrass," and it's not a stretch to argue that Poole was the first major star to come out of the chaotic early years of the recorded country music business.

By the time the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers came on the scene in 1927, Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers had already recorded nearly three dozen sides that remain classics today. Some sold in six figures, and while that may not sound like a lot by modern reckoning, it came during an era when relatively few homes had gramophones, and radio as an entertainment industry was still in its infancy. As with Jimmie Rodgers and later, Hank Williams, Poole's career was cut short by illness (and again like Hank, by alcohol), and by 1931, he was dead at the age of 39.

Probably the biggest challenge facing Davis was choosing which of Poole's 80-odd songs to apply his own bluegrass sensibilities to. Not a songwriter himself, Poole drew his repertoire largely from the songs that had traditional origins or were written in the 19th century and introduced as sheet music to be played on pianos in parlors across the country.

Many, like "One Moonlight Night" and "Goodbye Mary Dear" (both featured here) are sentimental songs which often also include Victorian-era moral messages, while others like "He Rambled" (from which the album title stems) and "If The River Was Whiskey" celebrate the rowdy and vagabond life which was closer to Poole's own.

"May I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight, Mister?" also reflects the common practice in the early decades of the 20th century of "borrowing" popular melodies and adding new lyrics - in this case, "Red River Valley." Poole's own voice was reedy and hard-edged, and in sharing the vocal duties and arranging the material for bluegrass, Davis and his band wisely fit things to their own voices and style. It's all well recorded and in keeping with Davis' desire to honor the old, but put a fresh slant on it.

Charlie Poole may be the most influential country music star that most country fans have never heard of, but all these songs are American standards that owe a lot of their popularity to him.