Fiddlin’ Billy Hurt – all the fiddle you can handle

Fiddlin' Billy HurtI suppose I should admit to a bias right up front. Billy Hurt, Jr. is a good friend of mine, and one of my favorite fiddlers in all of bluegrass and old time music. We’ve played a lot of music together, talked a lot more, and shared many a chilled libation over the years. But rest assured that I can recommend his new Patuxent Music CD, Fiddlin’ Billy Hurt, with no conflict of interest.

Billy is what you might be tempted to call a throwback – somebody who would be more comfortable living in an earlier time. The music he loves best comes from the 1930s-1970s, and he plays it with a clarity and precision quite rare in contemporary bluegrass. It’s not that he eschews modern technology – he has a cell phone and a computer – just that he works in an artistic milieu whose time has come and gone.

But anyone who shares this love for the fiddle music of the mid-twentieth century, characterized by players like Clark Kessinger, Kenny Baker and Joe Venuti, will cherish this strong new album. It’s overflowing with fiddle – 18 tracks, most of them through-and-through fiddle. In fact there are probably about a dozen solos from the banjo, mandolin and guitar combined across all dozen and a half numbers.

Growing up and learning to play just south of Roanoke, VA, Hurt had the good fortune to be acquainted with Kessinger, who was a family friend. The old man and the young boy formed a bond, and Billy absorbed everything he could from his mentor until Clark passed away in 1975. Kissinger, and his pre-bluegrass style, are largely forgotten among the young generation of fiddlers coming of age now, and hopefully this record can provide a needed corrective

Billy starts things out with a pair of Kessinger tunes, Poca River Blues and Old Jake Gillie, played stem-to-stern on the fiddle. The first, with its similarity to East Tennessee Blues, rips right along with a full band, distinguished by both the shuffle bow B part, and the fingerpicked fiddle section. Gillie is presented with just a guitar accompaniment, provided by Hurt’s bandmate with The Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show, Brennen Ernst, in a solid old time style.

Two more Kessinger tunes make the cut. Richmond Polka, with Jeremy Stephens on guitar and Robert Montgomery on banjo, is a lively tune, with the sort of sprightly melodic figures you expect from the genre, complete with the requisite key change. Red Bird is more of a hornpipe that rips along at a good clip, again with the fiddle taking the lead throughout.

A number of old time Appalachian favorites are included as well, though typically with slightly altered arrangements than what you might know from your neighborhood jams. In this category are Chinky Pin, Salt River, Sally Ann Johnson, and Smith’s Reel. All are well-played, with Smith’s being a standout, as is Hurt’s version of Ragtime Annie (with all three parts). Ernst picks up the banjo for Smith’s and lays down a fine single-string solo, a la Don Reno.

The sole original is one Billy wrote, known here as Richard’s Rag, though I had initially heard it with another name. Hurt tears this one from limb to limb, with another great banjo solo from Brennen. I fail to see how anyone can fail to love this barnburner.

Also impressive are Charlie Poole’s Lynchburg Town, the old timer Dance All Night With A Bottle In Your Hand, Kenny Baker’s Grassy Fiddle Blues, and The Pete & Fay Hatfield Old Time Key Of G Rag, from D.W.F Maloy.

The latter half of the album incorporates a number of jazz and swing tunes. Here you’ll find faithful, period-appropriate readings of Oh! Lady Be Good, Steamboat Bill, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, and closing with a plaintive waltz, When I Grow Too Old To Dream.

Other musicians who contribute are C.J. Lewandowski on mandolin, along with Danny Knicely who plays mandolin on several of the swing cuts. Kris Shiflett plays bass on each track, and Karl plays guitar on several.

Fiddlin’ Billy Hurt is a dynamo, with a power and passion that is instantly infectious. Those who love older fiddle styles, or would like to better understand them, should order this album today. Or anyone who just loves great fiddle music!

It is offered wherever acoustic CDs and downloads are available.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.