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August 28, 2009

The Red Fox Chasers - I'm Going Down to North Carolina

A word about old-time string bands and roots music:
This music is at the heart of America. Without music like this, there would be no Woody Guthrie (so no Bob Dylan), no Bill Monroe, no Doc Watson, no John Fahey. Why no John Fahey? Well, if you listen closely to his playing, you'll find that he's just as influenced by the syncopated guitar and banjo styles of old-time mountain music as he is by old country blues players like Charley Patton, Skip James and John Hurt. And there are two contemporary record labels who seem to understand this connection: John Fahey's own Revenant and Tompkins Square, which is devoted to releasing contemporary exploratory guitarists (see their excellent Imaginational Anthem comp), recording old and forgotten (but still living) masters like Charlie Louvin, and crafting beautiful and painstakingly-remastered reissues of classic (but often overlooked) American roots music.

As John Fahey pointed out, the best, most exciting and intricate American vernacular music was recorded not by folksong collectors making field recordings or other documentary efforts (Lomax, Library of Congress, etc.), nor by revivalists of the '60s, but by the commercial record companies of the '20s and '30s. And it was made by musicians who were playing in bars, at dances, on the streets, etc. for money. And they had no conceits that the music they were playing was in any way 'authentic', nor did they try to keep their music 'pure' and unaffected by outside influences. They were, quite simply, making the most fun, appealing, and relevant music they could, and they drew freely from traditional tunes, Tin Pan Alley hits, church harmonies, and contemporary events in stringing together (no pun intended) their wild and compelling brand of hillbilly music. This is melting-pot music, and it will sustain you like a good muskrat stew.

The Red Fox Chasers were a string band of the highest order. They were brilliant musicians, displaying the variety of invention and gleeful madness that characterize the best of old-time music. They had a rock-solid rhythm section composed of guitarist A.P. Thompson and banjoist Paul Miles, both of whom were at absolutely the cutting edge of their instrumental development and innovation (recalling Riley Puckett and Charlie Poole, respectively). On top of this they added a driving, soaring, plumetting fiddle and occasional harmonica. And they had sweet but never-too-easy harmonies that recalls the shape-note singing of the Southern Baptist church.

The way they sing and harmonize, every melody rests in the uncertain area between joy and remorse. A sprightly harmonica line might be coupled to one of the most gruesome murder ballads of the 20th Century ("Murder of the Lawson Family"), or a falling inflection could tint an otherwise celebratory song with an air of melancholy. This confluence of contradictory emotions produces a sort of paradoxical purgatory in which this music lives. And that, friends, is the secret to its timelessness.

For some listeners, old-time music seems like a joke that they don't get. For those, especially, get this set. Play it once, and then a week later play it again. And a week later, again. As you become accustomed to the at-first-off-putting twangy, scratchy surface quality of the music, you will begin to hear the ingenious, robust, exciting, and totally non-generic qualities of this music. For those who have already been bit by the bug of old-time madness, know that the Red Fox Chasers were every bit the equal of the Skillet Lickers, Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters, and the Carolina Tar Heels.

This double-disc set, beautifully packaged and remastered, is the best treatment these songs have ever gotten, and it's well-overdue. These tracks have been digitized from extremely rare '78s and so some surface noise is to be expected, but it soon becomes an invisible background through which the old tones shine, noble and true. Kinney Rorrer's illuminating liner notes bring fresh life to the tunes and performers. Props to label exec Josh Rosenthal for continuing to release brilliant and important collections such as this one.

Wikipedia says:
The Red Fox Chasers were a string band that formed in North Carolina in 1927, and were active until around 1931. Members included vocalist and guitar player A. P. Thompson, vocalist and harmonica player Bob Cranford, vocalist and banjo player Paul Miles, and fiddler Guy Brooks.

The Red Fox Chasers were formed at the 1927 Union Grove Fiddler's Convention in western North Carolina. A.P. “Fonzie” Thompson and Bob Cranford had already been singing partners, as they grew up together in Surrey County. Both had learned the rudiments of harmony by attending church singing schools in the area, where they learned to sing from seven-shape note songbooks. Both also sang in local Gospel quartets. In their spare time, they had also adapted old traditional songs, like those by Katy Cline, to their duet style. Paul Miles and Guy Brooks also grew up together, playing for square dances in nearby Alleghany County. Miles learned to play banjo at age 5, using a homemade instrument crafted from a meal sifter and a groundhog hide.

When the band formed in Union Grove, Paul Miles seemed to have taken the lead of the group. It was he who devised the name "Red Fox Chasers", and it was he who arranged for their first recordings for Gennett Records in April 1928. The success of records like "Did You Ever See a Devil Uncle Joe?" got the group several more offers to record in the next few years, and they eventually amassed a total of 48 sides. These included several hits that were to remain influential for years: "Stolen Love", "Goodbye Little Bonnie", "Little Darling Pal of Mine", "Honeysuckle Time", "Sweet Fern" and "Pretty Polly". One of their original songs, "Wreck on the Mountain Road", was based on a true incident and was one of the first “wreck on the highway” genre songs in country music.

Cranford and Thompson also recorded a number of mountain Gospel favorites for the same company. The Gennett Company routinely leased many of its sides to specialty labels, like those run by Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Some of The Red Fox Chasers’ biggest sellers came out under other names, such as the Virginia Possum Tamers and the Black Mountain Gang.

After the band broke up in the 1930s, all the members continued to stay active in music. Paul Miles recorded for the Library of Congress in the late 1930s, and A.P. Thompson continued to teach at singing schools, and sang with local quartets. In 1967, County Records issued an LP retrospective of the band’s best work

The first complete anthology of one of the great lost Appalachian string bands

Review by Amanda Petrusich

Excepting those preternaturally drawn to trawling auctions and flea markets for old crates of 78s, most traditional country fans haven't heard much of the Red Fox Chasers, a four-man string band from the northwestern corner of North Carolina, deep in the Appalachian mountains. I'm Going Down to North Carolina is the first complete anthology of the band's work, which consists of less than 40 sides and a handful of bootlegging skits, recorded between 1928 and 1931. It's a raucous, revelatory collection of old-time mountain music. The four neighbors and pals — vocalist and harmonica player Bob Cranford, vocalist and banjo-strummer Paul Miles, guitarist A.P. Thompson, and fiddler Guy Brooks — sing, strum and wail with high, Appalachian aplomb.

The band's biography is riddled with folksy details — Miles' first banjo was made from a meal sifter! Brooks bought his fiddle with money he saved up from selling hand-collected chestnuts for a dollar a bushel! They all learned to sing at a two-week shape-note singing tutorial led by an itinerant teacher! — but the music transcends any aw-shucks trappings. A mix of minstrel tunes, Tin Pan Alley cuts, disaster songs, ballads and tracks made more famous by Charlie Poole ("May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister?"), the Carter Family ("Little Sweetheart, Pal of Mine"), and Uncle Dave Macon ("Sweet Bye and Bye"), I'm Going Down to North Carolina is a comprehensive introduction to string band music, and a testament to the Chasers' dexterity and glee. Like any good mountain band, there's a healthy tension between the sacred and the profane, and the band's liquor-soaked "Virginia Bootleggers" — sung to the tune of "The River of Jordan," an old gospel song — even got poor Guy Brooks kicked out of his church. Which is possibly the highest endorsement of all.

I'm Going Down to North Carolina: The Complete Recordings of The Red Fox Chasers (1928-1931)

Year: 2009
Label: Tompkins Square

Disc 1
01. Arkansas Traveler - 3:11
02. Honeysuckle Time - 2:42
03. Jim & Me - 3:00
04. Wreck On the Mountain Road - 2:42
05. Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee - 3:03
06. Mississippi Sawyers - 3:14
07. May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister? - 2:56
08. Pretty Polly - 2:57
09. The Blind Man & His Child - 2:53
10. Looking To My Prayer - 2:40
11. Little Sweetheart Pal of Mine - 3:07
12. Goodbye Little Bonnie - 3:02
13. Stolen Love - 2:49
14. What is Home Without Babies - 3:11
15. Murder of the Lawson Family - 3:02
16. Twinkle Little Star - 2:58
17. Weeping Willow Tree - 2:48
18. Lula Wall - 2:47
19. Virginia Bootleggers - 2:55
20. Making Licker in North Carolina Pt. 1 - 3:07
21. Making Licker in North Carolina Pt. 2 - 2:33

Disc 2
01. Turkey in the Straw - 3:15
02. Mountain Sweetheart - 3:04
03. Sweet Fern - 2:37
04. Naomi Wise - 2:59
05. Budded Roses - 2:49
06. Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe? - 3:09
07. Something Wrong with My Gal - 2:45
08. Otto Wood - 2:39
09. Two False Lovers - 3:03
10. We Shall Meet on That Beautiful Shore - 2:48
11. Put My Little Shoes Away - 2:59
12. Two Babes in the Woods - 2:49
13. Tell My Mother I’ll Meet Her - 3:22
14. How I Love My Mabel - 3:02
15. Katy Cline - 2:52
16. Bring Me a Leaf from the Sea - 2:44
17. Under the Double Eagle - 3:16
18. That Sweetie of Mine - 3:00
19. Devilish Mary - 2:45
20. Making Licker in North Carolina Pt. 3 - 3:06
21. Making Licker in North Carolina Pt. 4 - 2:56

get it at Tompkins Square

A few songs to give you a taste below:

Murder of the Lawson Family:

Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe?

Honeysuckle Time

Turkey in the Straw

see also a fine review with song samples at IndyWeek

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