Hog-Eyed Man,
Hog-Eyed Man 1
(Yodel-Ay-Hee, 2014)

The Traynham Family,
Merry Mountain Hoedown
(Southern Mountain Melodies, 2014)

To warm us in the frigid months, here are two CDs that do old music right. In other words, the old way. The discs up for review revel in music that is actually rural, as opposed to "country." It isn't bluegrass, either. Not, of course, that either of those genres is objectionable in principle or practice. But mountain music endures because tradition carriers such as the Traynham Family and Hog-Eyed Man serve to remind us of its unique beauty and power.

As I type, Mac, Jenny and daughter Hanna Traynham play and sing, lifting my spirits against the gravitational pull of the chilly scenes of winter on ominous display outside my window. As is well known to anyone who's paying attention, family groups are a staple of Appalachian music. The older Traynhams live in Floyd County in southwestern Virginia; Hanna, who grew up there, now lives far away on the West Coast. Inevitably, one thinks of the most famous group of them all, the Carter Family, also of Virginia. Not a bad inspiration at all, but the Carters were a vocal trio who confined their back-up to guitars and autoharp. On Merry Mountain Hoedown the Traynhams turn to a richer, often dance-oriented sound in which fiddle and banjo assume prominence over guitar.

Most of the cuts are instrumentals. Half a dozen of the 16 numbers feature vocals. One is "Cuckoo Bird," the classic version associated with Clarence Ashley but played here on two banjos, and there's "High on a Mountain," written by Ola Belle Reed and sung most affectingly by Hanna. "Pearly Blue" is "Ida Red" by another name; Lester Flatt rewrote it slightly for what became the bluegrass standard "Down the Road." Though this CD moves from strength to strength, the closer, the unaccompanied three-part harmony "Wait Til I Put on My Robe" is a particular revelation. The fiddle tunes, mostly obscure and picked up locally, vividly evoke time, place and tradition in addition to being tight and rendered with verve and excellence.

Any album bearing the Traynham name will be its own assurance of quality to anyone who's heard the recordings of Mac, sometimes with Jenny or others. Mac is a maker of music in two senses, as performer and as builder (he makes banjos along with furniture and cabinets). In their performances and recordings he and Jenny draw upon a wide-ranging expertise in mountain folk and early country music. While living amid and immersed in the culture of rural Appalachia, they happen to be well educated, with both a learned knowledge of and an instinctive feeling for their region's old-time sounds.

On its first album the band Hog-Eyed Man -- consisting of Georgians Jason Cade (fiddle) and Rob McMaken (lap dulcimer, mandolin) -- is not engaged in the creation of just another album of old-time instrumentals, of which we may be grateful (I hasten to add) there's no shortage. Hog-Eyed Man 1 is an attempt, and a more than merely successful one, to resurrect the fiddle sounds of the pre-recording era, taking the listener into a lost world of tunes deeply rooted in soil and history. In the liner notes Cade conscientiously documents his sources, largely fiddlers who were little known outside their own areas (North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky) but whose talents and repertoires represent homegrown music at a level of proficiency and emotional complexity one is slightly shocked to encounter.

One such player was the late Byard Ray of Madison County, North Carolina, from whom Cade's mother took instruction and who in turn passed on the tunes to her son. (Two of them, "Slow Buck" and "Flight of the Wild Geese," appear here.) Cade quotes Ray's wry and memorable observation, "Ain't no woman or man ever been born who can get all there is to get out of a fiddle." Other traditional masters from whom the Hog-Eyes borrow material include Bruce Greene, Marcus Martin, Luther Strong, Roy Bennett, Hiram Stamper and more.

Cade and McMaken conjure up an almost unsettlingly prodigious tone out of their instruments. Cade's fiddle is in the lead, fashioning often somber, stately but never morose sentiments, with McMaken's tasteful accompaniment grounding it. Nothing feels in the least forced or flashy. Their approach, while unfailingly respectful, is never lifeless, actually a soulful celebration of a grand tradition that later fiddling styles associated with bluegrass and country would drive to the far margins.

Though every cut is a gem, I am particularly drawn to "Boatsman," from Marcus Martin, a tune at once lush and austere, melding "Napoleon's Retreat" and Daniel Decatur Emmett's "Boatman's Dance" (composed in the 1830s and, some claim, adapted from the singing of African Americans working on the Ohio River). It's followed by the evocatively titled "Railroad Through the Rocky Mountains," from Kentucky's Jim Bowles. Cade and McMaken apparently aren't singers, but somebody ought to put it in a medley alongside Sara Carter's song "Railroading on the Great Divide." On the other hand, maybe not. It could stop the world.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 February 2015

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