The Sunny Mountain Serenaders,
Into Thin Hair
(L-Century, 2015)

If sometimes it may seem like it to me, I have not been listening to oldtime stringband music longer than I can remember. To the contrary, I distinctly recall the first time I heard it, where, and by whom (1966, the wee hours of a South Dakota night, when J.E. Mainer's band boomed out of the radio from a station in Waterloo, Iowa). I also remember the first OTM album I purchased (the New Lost City Ramblers' Remembrance of Things to Come, about a year later). Through the decades that have passed since then, the music has never been far from me. Not my only musical companion, of course, but among the most treasured and turned to.

"Old time" is a phrase used just about anywhere to characterize a region's traditional music. As I grew up in the Upper Midwest, it was applied to polka bands and other accordion-driven sounds that preserved Old Country dance music from Scandinavia, Germany and Poland. These days, though, "old time" means, just about anywhere, Appalachian folk music. On occasion I hear the phrase applied to bluegrass, a much more recent style than played by the old string bands; admittedly, bluegrass grew out of those roots. Some young bands, such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Old Crow Medicine Show, play a 21st-century version of OTM, incorporating modern, often self-composed songs into the mix.

Into Thin Hair is old time in the old-fashioned sense, as played and sung by three veterans who have engaged with the music for so long that, as the title notes ruefully, their heads aren't as fully covered as when they started. (Mac Traynham's looks as if it's keeping up the good fight, though.) The Sunny Mountain Serenaders, a trio of Virginians, include Traynham (banjo), Mark Campbell (fiddle) and John Schwab (guitar). On this lively recording they provide a generous 18 excursions into the repertoire, revisiting both familiar material ("New River Train," "Richmond Blues") and the relatively more obscure ("Big Bend Gal," "California Cotillion").

As anybody who follows OTM will tell you, the songs and tunes, done right, never wear out their welcome. These guys, no surprise given their experience and talent, do them so capably that I found myself enjoying the good ol' good ones -- notably, the inexplicably fresh-feeling renditions of "New River Train" and "Waterbound" -- so fully that I rejoiced each time they came around in the rotation. Likewise the often-covered "The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee," brought into the mountain stringband repertoire by Charlie Poole's 1925 recording from an older pop song, and "Stackalee," the enduring ballad, done in a range of genres since its origin in 1890 in a real-life fatal encounter in a St. Louis saloon.

Being conscientious, the Serenaders cite their sources, an effort that only underscores their knowledge, derived from both the classic commercial recordings of the 1920s and from what they gleaned from friendships with older rural players to whom the fiddle and banjo tunes were integral to their existence. That music could be serious, but as often as not it was joyous, a celebration not only of life but of a particular way of living it. The miracle of oldtime music is that, even as it speaks the language of a particular time and place, it is not confined to it. Anybody with ears to hear and a soul to be moved can be transformed by it. The Serenaders capture everything you need to know to fall in love with a sound that, far from parochial and antique, seems strangely universal and immortal.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 March 2016

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