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Old Hat (OHCD1007)

David McCarn, Three ‘Baccer Tags, Carolina Twins, Wilmer Watts & Lonely Eagles, George Wade & Francum Braswell, Dave & Howard, Watts & Wilson, Fletcher & Foster.

Look at the map of North Carolina and you'll find Gastonia nestling in the hills of Gaston County encircled by small towns like Bessemer City and Bowling Green and to the east, the city of Charlotte. During the first part of the 20th century, Gastonia and the surrounding villages were bustling with textile mills manned by thousands of workers from all across the Carolina Piedmont and the Blue Ridge Mountains; the very people who loved country music so it could be heard at every dance and barbecue in the region, performed by bands of talented banjo, guitar and fiddle players who had burning ambitions.

Musicians like Gwin Foster, David McCarn and Wilmer Watts would travel hundreds of miles to audition for record company field sessions in Atlanta, Memphis, New York and Chicago. Between 1927 and 1942 they recorded truckloads of guitar ragtime instrumentals, traditional folk ballads, parlour songs, blues, pop tunes and fiddle breakdowns for labels like Columbia, Victor and Paramount - about 240 selections in all issued on more than 350 commercial records during the 15 year period and it's not well broadcast but Gastonia's enterprising musicians made a contribution to the recorded legacy of hillbilly music that was just as important as that of Galax and Danville, Virginia and the Spray-Leaksville-Draper hotspot in North Carolina.

Gwin Foster is probably more famous as the Gwen Foster who made his name playing harmonica and guitar on many of Clarence Ashley's records. As you'll hear on the tunes he recorded with David Fletcher (as The Carolina Twins and Fletcher & Foster), he was an unequalled virtuoso on the harmonica and he was no slouch on guitar either! Witness his sparkling runs and vigorous picking on Red Rose Rag and the local tune Charlotte Hot Step which is notable for its ‘black' chord changes and wonderful harmonica work.

Wilmer Watts' 78s are among the rarest items in old-time music with only around twenty-four sides being cut between 1927 and 1929 under the names Watts and Wilson and the imaginative moniker Wilmer Watts and The Lonely Eagles, so we're fortunate to have seven of these gems on this CD. Watts played old-style banjo and fairly hollered out the vocals in a rough but righteous style while Charles Freshour laid out the melody with fluid guitar runs and Palmer Rhyne occasionally stepped in to rip out some polished lines on steel guitar. Together, they fairly stomp out rambunctious versions of old blues tunes like Been On The Job Too Long (a variant of Duncan And Brady) and their romping Walk Right In Belmont which is a lusty re-evaluation of the old black prison song Midnight Special.

Dave McCarn, a much admired solo musician around town, pumped out crisp guitar and harmonica dance tunes like Gastonia Gallup and the narrative comic piece Everyday Dirt and swung out sweetly with his sometime partner guitarist Howard Long on upbeat items such as Serves ‘Em Fine. The Three ‘Baccer Tags were a stand-out string band thanks to their unusual line up of two mandolins and one guitar supporting some of the finest vocal harmonies I've ever come across. Their two superb numbers Get Your Head In There and Ain't Gonna Do It No More hint at black minstrelsy but have the unmistakeable swing of Piedmont mountain music.  

Despite the fact that most of the artists were involved with the Gastonia textile industry in one way or another, they didn't do too much singing about it so, apart from tunes like Cotton Mill Blues, Cotton Mill Colic and a couple more, the songs on this CD cover all the tried and tested themes; troubles with wimmin', bad times, good times, doomed love affairs, engineer's daughters, hard liquor and sex in cars. It's a superb anthology that features some of the most obscure musicians in the genre proving that there's still a huge amount of great music out there waiting to be discovered. Trust the folks at Old Hat to find the best for us!

Before I finish, just a word about the accompanying booklet which is crammed with juicy info on the artists, the area they came from and the wonderful tunes they played, a full discography of who does what and when, plus some pretty exciting photographs - including an unseen (by me, at least) shot of Gwin Foster in 1930 and the only known picture of the fabulous Wilmer Watts.

I've been listening to this tremendous CD for a few weeks now and I can guarantee you'll find the whole thing spell-binding from start to finish!

Review Date: January 2010

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