As citizens of West Virginia honor the memory of their recently deceased Senator, Robert C. Byrd, many long-time fans of bluegrass and old time music are recalling the Senator as a musician as well. Byrd played fiddle and sang in a traditional, Appalachian style, an image somewhat at odds with that of “the esteemed gentleman from West Virginia.”
Though he never claimed to be a fine fiddler, Byrd used his avocation to his advantage for many years during the early part of his political career, campaigning in rural West Virginia as “Fiddlin’ Robert Byrd.” I recall a number of talented young bluegrass artists in the 1970s who were on his payroll, traveling with the Senator for public appearances both in the DC area and back home in West By God.
County Records has been in preparation since early in 2009 to reissue Byrd’s 1978 album, Mountain Fiddler, which also featured Doyle Lawson on guitar, James Bailey on banjo and Spider Gilliam on bass, all of whom were members of The Country Gentlemen at the time. The album was recorded in Byrd’s Senate office in 1977 by Bill McElroy, who brought in special gear he had modified for the occasion. The label has been anticipating the Senator’s participation in a CD release event in August, an outcome overruled by his passing on June 28.
The reissue is now available, with all 14 tracks from the original LP release (County 769). The songs and tunes are all familiar standards, and the uninitiated may be surprised to hear Byrd fiddling and singing in such a clearly natural and authentic manner. The packaging has been modified, with extensive notes from producer Barry Poss and Alan Jabbour of the American Folklore Center included. Poss worked with County at the time, and Jabbour had previously recorded the Senator for The Library of Congress, an event that is said to have piqued his interest in making an album.
Lawson recalled some of his memories from the session.
“I was so impressed with Byrd’s ability to play. He played the fiddle well with a great deal of drive and intensity. I was really surprised, because at the time, I knew who Senator Byrd was, but I had no idea he played old-time fiddle until I was invited to work with him on the album. In the end, I was delighted with his love for old time music, and the fiddle. He dearly loved it. At the beginning, it was clear that he had not played with a band, but he picked up really quick. He was very observant and open to suggestions. After a couple of tips, it was smooth sailing, and turned into a wonderful project.”
The folks at County also agreed to let us share a track from the CD. It’s Byrd’s version of Cumberland Gap, which begins with his introduction of the tune.
Cumberland Gap: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/cumberland_gap.mp3]
Many of the tracks include this sort of introduction, adding tremendously to the personal nature of the recording. Here’s a complete list:
Mountain Fiddler will be available soon through all the usual online and brick-and-mortar resellers of bluegrass music.