Volume 2 of a series originally released on County Records 787 in 1980, ‘Five Miles Out of Town’ is a collection of incredible old time music from the Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee and Kentucky. Prominently featuring the old time fiddling of John Sharp and the unique two finger banjo picking technique of Virgil Anderson (both known for their work with their original group, the never recorded Kentucky Wildcats) the album also includes regional songs and ballads performed by Clarence Ferrill and Dee Hicks. Produced by folklorist Bobby Fulcher, this collection of rare and beautiful recordings helps shed a bit more light on the rich and underappreciated musical heritage of the region. As Charles Wolfe writes, “The Cumberland Plateau has kept alive the old traditions in music better than anywhere else in the mid-South, and the musicians on this anthology represent the best, purest, and toughest exemplars of that heritage. They prove that mountain music is not extinct; their product is rich, rambunctious, complex, and enthralling – vibrant echoes of a lost age”. These echoes still ring true more than 30 years after the original release of this fantastic two-album set.
This album is the result of independent fieldwork conducted from 1976 to 1983 buy Bobby Fulcher, originally released as County 787, with assistance from The American Folklife Center, Gar and Pete Blevins, Elmer and Lola Hurst, Lorene Davenport, Mabel Anderson, Bonnie Sharp, Evelene Sharp, Opal Wright, Jim and Floyd Sharp, Dr. Charles Wolfe, Janet Moore, Opal Lusk, Delta Hicks, Frances Cobb, Hazel Ferrill, Eula Mayton, Junior Sharp, Eric Olson, Rosie Hall, and family and friends. The original booklet production was supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk Arts Program.
Produced by Bobby Fulcher
Recorded by Bobby Fulcher and Barry Poss
Remastering by Wayne Martin, Rich Nevins, and Anna Frick/Airshow
Notes by Bobby Fulcher
Album Design, Illustration, and booklet design by Marcianne O’Day, Fred Carlson, Megan Lee Unthank and Mark Unthank
Assistant Production: Sam Simmons, Marcianne O’Day
Additional thanks for Dave Freeman for support and cooperation
John Sharp often woke up his family before daylight with a cheerful imitation of the cardinal’s song, a fiddle tune named “Redbird.” Their bedtime just as likely would be preceded by fiddle music, or put off for hours when music-loving friends and relatives came to visit. Fiddling John Sharp loved music with a great emotional intensity. A daughter recalls watching with the other children through a little “cubby-hole” window in the loft of their house for their father’s return one miserable, sleeting winter night in 1937. When their father, a stocky, tough man, came into sight, he was crying. Crippled since boyhood by a leg injury, he had fallen and cracked the record, “Carroll County Blues,” that he had walked five miles to buy at a Stearns Company Store. Placing it upon the Victrola, he found that the record would play, and, overjoyed, stayed up past midnight to learn the tune. Sharp always began a fiddle tune with the fiddle under his chin, standing or sitting straight. When the music started, his body began twisting, bending, and crouching, his eyes shut tight, his mouth worked along with the tune, and his arms sung the fiddle about, playing around his feet or above his head. Sometimes he would wind up on his knees, playing and whooping, or shaking the fiddle to make the rattlesnake rattles inside the instrument sound out.
John Sharp was born September 2, 1894 in the “Washington Young Place,” a log house just on the Kentucky side of the state line, now said to be the dwelling with the longest continual occupation in the state of Kentucky (since 1792). John’s mother found him at age six hiding behind a door playing “Rye Straw.” His father, also a skilled fiddler, taught him tunes like “Wild Goose Squall,” and “Fourteen Wildcat Scalps,” even humming one the day he died for John to learn. John joined a small exodus to the farmland of Iowa in 1916, with his new bride, Bonnie. He stayed long enough to learn a few Midwestern tunes, but was back in Kentucky, via Oklahoma, by 1919. The next year he moved to Tennessee to work on the Slick Ford-Stockton pole road, a railroad-like system of tracks made with small poles for mule teams pulling carts loaded with logs. Except for a few years back on the Washington Young Place, he spent the rest of his life in Tennessee, near Sharp Place, working in the log woods, farming, and playing music. He was a neighbor for a while to his second cousin, Will Phipps, whose large repertoire of unusual solo fiddle tunes was much admired. Bonnie Sharp remembers Burnett and Rutherford riding up on two fine-looking red mares in July 1929, to spend a week-long visit with John, a new acquaintance they had made, probably at the courthouse gatherings in Monticello.
In 1931 John was approached by Virgil Anderson, who had once been a close neighbor, to form the Kentucky Wildcats string band. Later, eight of his children took up instruments, and each one at some point travelled with him to play for Democratic political rallies, dedication ceremonies, family reunions, and weekly dances at Pickett State Park. In 1949, Sgt. Alvin York invited Sharp down for an evening to try out a new record-cutting machine. York recorded about 25 sides for his lifelong fiddling friend, who send most of them away as presents. These disks, with John Sharp, Jr., and Clyde Evans accompanying on rhythm guitars, are the best existing examples of Sharp’s abilities. Just a year before he died, in 1964, he recorded several more tunes for his family on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
“Three Way Hornpipe,” the masterpiece of the 1949 session, includes Clyde Evans’ slap rhythm accompaniment, a technique John disliked at first. Coupling it with Junior’s resonant open chording, he came to appreciate its rhythmic contribution, and considered Clyde an essential for the session. The three part tune, which he learned from his father, was “more for listening than dancing by.” John instructed Junior Sharp to write “Sharp’s Hornpipe” on the disk with a tune quite similar to “Miller’s Reel.” Several family members believe he composed the tune. Neither “Sharp’s Hornpipe” nor “Three Way Hornpipe” are known to other area musicians, even those who played with John for years. “Five Miles Out of Town” was perhaps Sharp’s favorite square dance piece. Clyde Davenport’s uncle, Al Davenport, and African-American fiddler Bled Coffey—both noted 19th century fiddlers from the region—also played the tune, and it remained a standard in the area, with considerable variation. Christenson collected a Missouri tune with the same title.
Dee Hicks’ father epitomized the unambitious mountaineer, as described in Thomas Hughes’ writings. Daniel and his brothers were raised in the Fentress County wilderness as hunters, rather than farmers, and made little effort in any endeavor, except singing and tale-telling. Elmer Hurst’s father was often in the crown that would gang up around the moccasin-shod Hicks men when they made their entry into Jamestown: “They just had had an old countrified talk, backwoodsmen talk you might say. Well that’s what they were. People would just gather around ‘em to hear them talk and tell them big yarns. They’d tell unreasonable tales.” Daniel’s children deeply loved and admired him, and savored the endless stream of beautiful and humorous songs he treated them to every night. Dee, like his father, became a master ballad singer. He could neither read nor write, yet carried some of America’s most elegant works of folk art. Before his death in 1983 at age 77, approximated 400 songs were documented in his repertoire, possibly the largest collection contributed to the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Culture by a single traditional artist. Two full albums of Hicks family songs with descriptive notes are available: County 789 and Tennessee Folklore Society 104.
“Old Bangum” was one of Dee’s favorite songs because of the hunting theme, and the humor in the encounter with the “wild woman,” a witch figure in some versions. The Harmon’s version from Cade’s Cove, Tennessee, collected in 1939 is the only American variant that equals Dee’s in completeness.
Otherwise known as “The Bonnie Bunch of Roses,” “Young Repoleon” is an extremely rare inclusion in a Southern repertoire. The song was printed in the popular “Forget Me Not Songster” in 1835. The more complete versions tell the story of Napoleon’s son taking counsel from his mother to forget the foolish hope of conquering the three roses: England, Ireland, and Scotland.
“Lincoln Was a Union Man” demonstrates Dee’s neat two-finger banjo style. Dee’s uncle, John Hicks, was also a Union man, in fact, he rode with Tinker Dave Beatty’s guerilla gang. The song has not been reported in other collections.
For someone with the impossible task of selecting the greatest traditional banjo player, Virgil Anderson’s nomination would be as easy as any to defend. The evidence—two LP’s featuring Virgil’s music (“On the Tennessee Line,” County 777; and, “Music of Tennessee,” Heritage 042) — demonstrates his superb technical ability to pick delicate melodies, chord creatively, knock out syncopated dance tunes, utilize novel effects, and freely improvise. Now, in his eighth decade, Virgil continues to learn and create new songs, and to perform with enthusiasm and unconservative abandon.
“My mother failed to dish my brains out the back door when I was born,” is his own reasoning for his uninhibited condition. Other details of Virgil’s birth, in 1902, are more certain. His birthplace was Palace, Kentucky, an edge of Wayne County bordering the Cumberland River. His father floated log rafts to Nashville, split barrel staves at company tent camps, and unloaded steam boats in Russell County in the years up to Virgil’s birth:
“He was apickin’ that banjer biggest part of the time. And that black man [on the steamboat] would slip him whiskey, and just keep him about half drunk apickin’ that banjer. He’d slip him different extra food, you know, cake and pie. The rest of ‘em wasn’t gettin’ it. He was the cook and he’d give him the very best, cause he’d pick that man a banjer. It was asuitin’ that black man. Virgil soon joined the music-making and dancing: I’d be in the bed, my mother said, until I was two or three years old aplayin’ the banjer-tunes that she could understand what I was playin’—I knowed nothin’ about it. Can’t remember nothin’ about it. It’s unbelievable. Ain’t nobody believes that, but my mother told it. Same way by dancin’. I never could hear a racket, if it was like an engine runnin’ or something another, I’d want to dance after it. That’s the reason I was dancin’ after my Great-Uncle Green Johnson achurnin’ with that old time churn. He was settin’ on the kitchen porch on the steps outside, settin’ there achurnin’. And that went so good to me, I had to get with it. I had to keep time with it. Well, he couldn’t stand that. “You stop that, Virgil!” Well, when he’d stop, I’d stop. When he’s start again, I’d hit her again. And he’d holler out for my Daddy. And he come I had to “sell out, Doc!” I had to stop.”
Virgil’s father soon took the family into the unsettled life of “Following the public works,” moving to a different logging or stave camp every six months or so. At the age of eighteen, in a rough, logging camp just north of the Tennessee state line, he had an eye-opening encounter with a prominent Tennessee string band, the Bertram brothers. The first time I ever heard ‘em, me and my dad was going through the camp. Big, long band mill camp. And we kept walking down there a directly he said, “I believe I hear music.” Got a little piece further and they was playin’ at the bandmill, where the lumber come down on the shoots. And such a crowd; looked like the whole company was there. We just crowded right on through ‘em, and got close to’em. See’d that they was colored people. Boy’s I’m atelling’ you they was singing. They’s getting’ that alto. Just almost make you cry. That guitar and banjer. Then they’d lay the guitar down and take the banjer and fiddle. Oh, just so handy as a goose goin’ barefooted, you know. Well, I just tied right in with ‘em… I remember I bought an old guitar but I didn’t know much about it. But then I see’d them agrabbin’ them chords just like that, I knowed to get with it. Just them all at once… Naturally, it was awkward for two or three times tryin’ it, but I see’d what had to be done. If I done it, I was gonna do it; if I didn’t I was out of it. Virgil’s conversion was to a fuller, more sophisticated “chord music,” with a blues touch, and he was no longer satisfied with just “noting out” the simple dance tunes his father played. The blues and the Bertram’s chord music, represented by a wide variety of songs and tunes of both black and white origin, became Virgil’s love. It’s the drive, and the time, and the beat that they have. They don’t get too fast or too slow… They look like they’re gonna get plumb off of it, but they’ll never lose their time. By 1931, the Depression resulted in a shutdown of the sawmill camps, so to earn money for some of his children’s winter clothing, Virgil recruited John Sharp, and his brother-in-law Clyde Troxell to perform in the still busy coal camps as the Kentucky Wildcats. As Burnett and Rutherford were travelling the same route, just ahead of them, Virgil would ballyhoo at the entrance of the schoolhouses they rented: “We’re come down here to pick up what they’re leavin’ out: It ain’t me atalkin’—we’ll provit to you, that we are pickin’ what they’re leavin’ out!” Virgil settled in his present home in Griffen, Kentucky, in 1937. The homesite’s remote location and the demands of farm life took Virgil away from the rough-and-tumble excitement of the public works, but he and his wife adjusted, and raised a large family of musicians. One son, Dillard, became lead guitarist for Orangie R. Hubbard’s original Cherokees, a rockabilly group that recorded for the Lucky and King labels in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another son, Willard, continued to develop a blues guitar style, led by Virgil’s interest in the music. During a visit in 1982, they created “Ain’t It Awful,” while discussing the rhythms of black dance. “We just got to gettin’ the time with it.” Virgil’s father also appreciated the black music of the area. He heard a steel-driving crew singing “Goin’ Around This World, Baby Mine” while working on the Cumberland River, and passed it on to Virgil. A black man travelling through Monticello one day in the early 1930’s left Virgil with the words to “Bye, Bye Blues.” The chording technique was learned from the Bertrams, but the tuning (gDGCD) and chord arrangement are Virgil’s ideas.
Clarence Ferrill led a number of popular square dance groups in Alpine, Tennessee, during his life (1908-1977). The son of a minister, his music training first came in church and singing schools. Hymns and gospels songs remained among his favorites pieces. “City on the Hill” is a favorite in the area, and often published in religious songbooks. In the late 1930’s Ferrill teamed with a guitar-playing neighbor, Homer Ledford, at weekly square dances in Standing Stone State Park in Livingston, Tennessee. Ledford has since established a national reputation as a dulcimer maker. In his later years Ferrill was joined by Varney Smith of Livingston, Tennessee, on banjo, and Victor Garrett of Crawford, Tennessee, on guitar. These three recorded the “New Five Cents” and “Goin’ Across the Sea” heard on this anthology.
Design by Rachel Boillot