Germany’s Bear Family Records has become known in the traditional music world for its superbly curated box sets, featuring entire catalogs from artists such as Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and The Carter Family. The company’s most recent traditional release is The Johnson City Sessions: Can You Sing or Play Old Time Music?, a four-CD box set chronicling the 1928-29 Columbia recording sessions in Johnson City, TN.
The set includes one hundred songs on its four discs, from both well-known artists such as Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman and Clarence “Tom” Ashley as well as regional groups which have now faded into obscurity, like West Virginia’s Moatsville String Ticklers. To the modern ear, the songs here might sound a little strange. Due to the time period of the recordings, the sound quality is not the best, and some of the artists sound a bit unrehearsed or inexperienced when compared to today’s era of Autotune and digital recording. However, this collection isn’t meant to compete with chart-topping groups in 2013. It’s meant to celebrate and honor those who led the way in establishing country, bluegrass, and old-time music, and it does that in fine style.
One of the best parts of the collection, in fact, is (like all Bear Family box sets) the well-researched and meticulously compiled book that accompanies the CDs. The book in question here is a 136-page hardcover volume that includes everything from notes on the various artists to rare photos of the majority of the musicians featured in the set. The book was co-authored by two prominent scholars of traditional American music, Ted Olson (a professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University) and British music historian Tony Russell, and they have done a superb job. The photographs and images of advertisements and letters make the musicians come alive to the listener; instead of historical figures, they are just bands playing the music they love, much like many of us.
The songs, though different than what most of us are used to hearing on the radio, are still enjoyable to listen to, particularly a few of the quirkier cuts. George Roark’s I Ain’t a Bit Drunk is a fun, upbeat straightforward old-time tune that sounds similar to Get Along Home Cindy. There’s a formal-sounding tribute to those who died on The Battleship Maine, performed by Richard Harold. While it sounds very straight-ahead and serious, Bill and Belle Reed’s Old Lady and the Devil is actually quite humorous, telling the story of a woman who is stolen away by the devil, but doesn’t give him much reason to keep her.
There are also some numbers that should be very familiar to today’s listeners. The original cut of Roll On Buddy is here, performed by Charlie Bowman & His Brothers. Tell It to Me, which Old Crow Medicine Show included on their first album, sounds strikingly similiart to the version recorded by the Grant Brothers & Their Music in 1928 and included here. Ira and Eugene Yates contribute Sarah Jane, which isn’t an earlier version of Flatt and Scruggs’ My Saro Jane, but a comical love song about a woman whose best features seem to be her onion-scented breath and humpback. Ralph Stanley fans may recognize the tune from his Hills of Home album.
Old-time music fans, particularly those who enjoyed the previous Bear Family box set of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, will enjoy this extensive collection of music, as will those who are interested in seeing where today’s traditional genres started out. The set may be a bit expensive for the casual fan (ranging between $99 and $120 from various retailers), but for devotees of historical music, the set should be worth it.
For more information on The Johnson City Sessions box set, visit the Bear Family Records website at www.bear-family.com. The collection can be purchased from a variety of online retailers.
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