David Davis and the Warrior River Boys have released Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole (Rounder Records, 2018, $11.99/9;49), a recording of fourteen classic Poole songs from pre-bluegrass era of the 1920’s when Poole became one the earliest country musicians to travel to New York, record, and begin the popularization of music hitherto only known to very few. Poole first recorded in New York in 1925 for Columbia Records, scoring a hit with “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” which sold 106,000 copies at a time when it was estimated there were only 6000 phonographs in the southern U.S. With his band, the North Carolina Ramblers, Poole recorded sixty songs for Columbia. He died of a heart attack, probably aggravated by his long relationship to alcohol, in 1931.
David Davis, long a well-regarded disciple of Bill Monroe’s music, with a deep family and personal connection to traditional bluegrass music, has, in Didn’t He Ramble: The Songs of Chalie Poole, moved further back in time to consider one of the most important antecedents to bluegrass music. In choosing Charlie Poole as the content of his current Rounder Records title, Davis has selected a seminal creator of traditional music, noted as an important precursor of the development of the banjo, and as one of earliest traditional mountain music performers to record widely, bringing his music to new audiences while taking it out of the confines of Appalachia.
In Linthead Stomp, Patrick Huber considers the role of four seminal musicians in the movement of mountain music to mills in the southern Piedmont on the music’s journey to the recording studio, first in Bristol under the leadership of Ralph Peer, and then to New York where southern authenticity mixed with Tin Pan Alley commercialism to create a music industry requiring genres for its distribution. Poole’s recording predated Peer’s famous 1927 recordings known as the Bristol Sessions, recorded on a trip to Brisol, TN.
Sammy Shelor, winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, told us the story one evening when we were camped near his home in Meadows of Dan, VA, about his direct relationship to Charlie Poole. He said his grandfather had owned a flour mill and “where there was a mill, there was a still. Where there was a still, there was Charlie Poole.” Poole, who died way too early of advanced alchoholism, taught Shelor’s grandfather to play the banjo. His influence on the development of modern banjo is pervasive. Here’s a recording of Poole singing Ramblin’ Blues.
In Didn’t He Ramble, Davis has brought the music of Charlie Poole into the twenty-first century, while staying firmly anchored in the 1920’s of Poole’s music and in traditional bluegrass representations of earlier musical sounds and styles. Davis’ singing is modern in its natural tone and relaxed feeling. His mix and the musical styles capture Poole’s older sound in the fresh clothing of contemporary skills and play, with traditional bluegrass licks like, for instance, the band's frequent use of the hoary but effective G-run attributed to Lester Flatt. The music, then, is an interpretation rather than an imitation of Poole’s music, which always deserves to be highlighted for anyone interested in the progress of bluegrass and country music from its earliest days to today’s outpourings of string band music with continually developing changes while often finding ways to bow to the pioneers who struggled to bring their music to a wider audience. In this tradition, David Davis’s contribution to keeping the music of Charlie Poole alive for a new generation is more than welcome, as is Rounder Records’ willingness to continue to focus on the roots, as it always has, of the music we hear in the music we love. This is Davis’ fourth recording under the Rounder label.
Davis comes from a long line of traditional musicians in northern Alabama. His uncle, Cleo Davis was a member of the first edition of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. The Warrior River Boys, begun in 1960 by Garry Thurmond, were turned over to Davis’ leadership in 1984. The current band includes Robert Montgomery, who served as co-producer of the current recording, on banjo. Other members are: Marty Hays on bass, Stan Wilmon on guitar, and Phillip James on fiddle. Here’s a video of David Davis & the Warrior River Boys playing Ramblin’ Blues.
David Davis and the Warrior River Boys recording of Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole (Rounder Records, 2018, $11.99/9.49) arrives at a time of transition in the history of bluegrass music, as technology, both recording and distribution, have become increasingly diverse, which demands attention to the music’s deep traditions and recognition of its changing nature. Rounder Records, throughout its long history, has achieved both goals. The current recording, beautifully recorded by Gary Gordon at Inside Out Studio in Sparta, Illinois, is filled with tunes, many of which have been part of the bluegrass repertoire for fifty or more years, but will find new ears and hearts in this recording.
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