Friday, May 06, 2005

CD Review: Charlie Poole And The Roots Of Country Music - You Ain't Talkin' To Me


It was a lifetime ago when Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers entered a studio in New York City to cut some music for Columbia Records; it will be 80 years ago this July. It was such a different world with no television, central heat and air, personal computers, or wireless phones to name just a few obvious things. Records were still being cut to wax cylinders or 78’s and radio had never heard of the creeping evil called demographics. Charlie Poole was a record nut. He’d get a favorite and play it over and over, especially if there was a banjo in it. He’d been playing banjo since the age of 8 and had developed his own unique three fingered style after severely injuring a hand playing baseball. This appreciation for records and his own confidence that him and his band, the North Carolina Ramblers, could do better is what led to the group to leave their Piedmont region homes in North Carolina and travel to New York City in the hopes they would be able to make a record of their own.

It sounds incredible today, but Poole got his trio (Posey Rorer on fiddle, Norman Woodlieff guitar) an audition for Columbia A&R man-producer Frank Walker who gave them $75 to cut a record. This session from 1925 led to “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” selling over 102,000 copies which was an extraordinary amount at a time when 20,000 sold was considered a smash hit. The same session also yielded “White House Blues”, later a staple of both Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers, and recently revived by John Mellencamp. Poole’s high treble voice and banjo style is just as appealing now as it obviously was then. Those 1925 sessions predated Ralph Peer’s Bristol sessions giving ample ammunition for historians and music lovers to credit Poole for the birth of country music. He’s considered by many to be the “patron saint” of country music.

Poole was also a hard drinking hell raiser which wasn’t all that uncommon for a man who worked in the mills and moonshine industries when he wasn’t entertaining people with his music and stage antics. As the liner notes from You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me by Henry “Hank” Sapoznik point out: …a Charlie Poole show was something to see. Punctuating sly twists on familiar songs with his rat-a-tat picking style, Poole would leap over chairs, turn cartwheels, clog dance on his hands, and shake up audiences with repertoire that just as surprising. Typical sets would careen from prim, cautionary heart songs to a ditty usually reserved for bawdy house anterooms to fiddle tunes to over-the-top dramatization, [and] versions of popular songs, before drawing to a close with a contemplative hymn. If that wasn’t enough to keep you amused and you decided to start talking during his show, he would shout you down with his razor sharp wit.

Poole continued to have hits with his North Carolina Ramblers even after Posey Rorer left the group. The Ramblers even expanded to a twin fiddle line-up toward the end of their recording career. But by the start of the 1930’s Poole’s recordings were not selling, but this was due more to the Great Depression than any declining quality in his work. By 1931 he was back working in the mills. He had even pawned his banjo. When it looked like he would never play music again, he was asked to come to Hollywood to provide music for a film. Poole then went on a twelve week drinking binge to celebrate which ended with his death at the age of thirty-nine. This tragedy has only solidified his legend among fans of old-time music.

The You Ain’t Talking To Me box set is arriving just in time for the annual Charlie Poole Festival held in Eden, North Carolina. It contains 43 tracks by Charlie Poole – a great representation of his craft. The material shows the range of influences on him. From the liner notes: ...Poole had a crazy-quilt repertoire. Traditional and recent ballads and tunes, slightly dusty popular songs rescued from a Victorian piano bench or learned off stray 78’s, bathetic lamentations from the Civil War era, the first winking, nudging music from vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, heart songs, event songs – he loved them all. The box set also contains 29 tracks by other performers, many of them contemporaries, either influential to Poole or influenced by him. It’s highly recommended if you are a fan of bluegrass, folk or old Appalachian country music. Charlie Poole may have went to New York City carrying a banjo on his arm with the hopes of just making a record, but he also carried the blueprint for country music in his other arm creating a body of work now revered. He’s the country music equivalent of Robert Johnson and just like Johnson, his icon status is due to a large degree to the way he lived his life. But much more important is the actual music produced. Don’t let this deal go down without you.

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