- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

With his wisecracking tenor and driving banjo leading the way, Charlie Poole’s contribution to the foundation of country and bluegrass music comes home in a big way in the new boxed set “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music.”

With 72 tracks on three discs, packaged in a vintage-looking cigar box with cover art from cartoonist and old-time-music fan R. Crumb, the set includes detailed recording notes and a studious essay about Poole, who died in 1931 at age 39. His hard-driving — and drinking — lifestyle during the years leading up to the Depression were legendary. Although he didn’t live to see it, Poole influenced the founders of what would come to be country and bluegrass music — genres that even today carry his unique stamp.

Born in Randolph County, N.C., into a migrant laborer’s family in 1892, he was the only one of eight brothers and a sister who turned to music. He played his own homemade gourd-based banjo until he took profits from a moonshining job to buy a factory-made Orpheum No. 3 Special for $132 — a state-of-the-art instrument in the early 1900s, according to the 34-page booklet essay written by set producer Henry Sapoznik.

Moonshining was a perfect fit for Poole. While the liquor was cooking, he practiced his banjo along with his fiddling friend Posey Rorer. The two would form the original incarnation of one of the first successful old-time trios, the North Carolina Ramblers. (Guitarist Roy Harvey was an original member of the group. Guitarist Norman Woodlief also played and recorded with the trio on occasion.)

Poole was no songwriter. Like country recording pioneer A.P. Carter, Poole was more of an interpreter of songs. He took old tunes he admired and recorded them in his own style, often changing words to fit what he wanted to say and nearly always changing the titles.

Active at a time when the banjo was coming into prominence as an instrument in minstrel shows, Poole was heavily influenced by the popular ragtime music and vaudeville songs of his day. All this is cleverly demonstrated by the boxed set with side-by-side tracks illustrating how Poole either influenced or was influenced by a particular recording in the days before musical styles were so established.

Other artists on the discs include such old-time stalwarts as Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Walsh and Gid Tanner, as well as lesser-known artists such as the Floyd County Ramblers, the Blue Ridge Highballers, the Red Fox Chasers, Eddie Morton, Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers, Billy Murray, Fred Van Eps, Arthur Collins and many others.

Listening is like stepping back in time, into an era of acoustic recording, where the hiss of the Victrola is as much a part of the music as the driving three-finger banjo, the bass runs of the guitar and the looping fiddle. Poole’s voice cuts through the mix easily, although his words are at times hard to discern. It’s part of the charm.

Poole’s selection of material runs from novelty songs of the day — “Sweet Sixteen” deals with chewing gum, for example — to medleys of minstrel songs. Listeners will recognize almost all of the melodies as well as the styles and influences.

Poole’s first recording, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” from a July 27, 1925, session at Columbia Studios in New York, is a bluegrass standard to this day. Mr. Sapoznik reports that the 78 rpm record from that session, backed by “Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister,” sold 102,000 copies and earned the trio a fee of $75, more than all three would have earned in a week in the mills where they had worked in North Carolina. It was a sensation in its day.

Poole’s lifestyle gained him about as much notoriety as his recordings did. Mr. Sapoznik dutifully reports the drunken wager that led to the crippling of Poole’s right hand. He bet he could catch a baseball barehanded no matter how hard it was thrown. He lost.

The stunt permanently disfigured his picking hand, but, like guitarist Django Reinhardt, Poole turned the handicap to advantage in developing a unique three-finger style that ultimately influenced banjo trailblazer Earl Scruggs. Yet it’s evident in the side-by-side recordings on the boxed set that Poole is fudging the melodic picking. He gets points for trying.

Poole also had run-ins with the law, some of which are documented in Mr. Sapoznik’s essay.

Despite being married to Rorer’s sister, Poole eventually fell out with his fiddle player over the division of royalties. Rorer ultimately formed a competing Carolina Piedmont band.

Poole then recorded with Lonnie Austin, a fiddler and piano player, and went on to expand his band with fiddler Odell Smith, for a twin-fiddle sound, and pianist Lucy Terry.

Columbia declined to record the Charlie Poole Orchestra, so Poole took his band to Brunswick Records, where they recorded under the pseudonym Allegheny Highlanders. This segment of Poole’s recording career is documented by two tracks in the boxed set, a driving version of the mountain tune “Flop-Eared Mule” and a medley titled “A Trip to New York Part 1,” both on Disc 1.

Like most artists of his day, Poole’s career suffered during the Depression. He scraped by as best he could, putting together a 30-city tour of movie houses, where the band would play between reels. Mr. Sapoznik writes that “audiences booed when the film resumed.”

By the winter of 1931, though, he was back in North Carolina as if it had all been a dream. Columbia dropped his contract, and Poole spun into a depression of his own. Despite the promise of work on a film soundtrack — Poole had propped the train tickets to California on his dresser — he went on a 13-week drinking binge and died after being carried drunk to the home of his sister.

As Mr. Sapoznik observes, Charlie Poole was an “outlaw country” artist decades before the term was invented. But anyone who has ever hefted a banjo — or listened to one — owes him a debt of gratitude.

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