Ken Davidson passes

Ken Davidson manning his Kanawha Records booth at Union Grove in 1971 – photo by Carl Fleischhauer

Ken Davidson, perhaps best known for founding Kanawha Records in 1963, passed away on December 20, 2016. He was aged 75.

Kenneth Harold Davidson was born on September 13, 1941, in Wyoming, West Virginia.

As a young man Davidson was deeply interested in the traditional music of the area and was responsible for discovering some of the region’s best performers, including the remarkable fiddler French Carpenter as well as banjo player and singer Jenes Cottrell.

In 1964 Davidson lifted influential American old-time fiddler Clark Kessinger, who had recorded dozens of tunes in the 1920s for the Brunswick label, out of obscurity by recording Kessinger and his band for his label, Folk Promotions Records.

Three more Kessinger albums followed on Davidson’s new label Kanawha Records, an outgrowth of Folk Promotions. His albums were later reissued on Folkways and County Records.

Davidson was most active in the 1960s and 1970s, when he not only released records by his newly-found old-time and bluegrass musicians, he ensured that they had an improved performance profile, supporting them at fiddle contests and taking them to such prestigious events as one of the Boston Area Friends of Bluegrass and Old-Time Country Music concerts and the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.

As well as recordings by Kessinger, there were releases by fiddler W. Franklin George and the revivalist group the Hollow Rock String Band.

Another up-and-coming artist who was given a lift by Davidson was mandolin player Ron Thomason, now leader of the Dry Branch Fire Squad, with an LP The Mandolin & Other Stuff (Kanawha 324, released in 1975).

On another label that Davidson founded, Tri-Agle-Far Records, he re-released two Kessinger LPs, two by Georgia Slim and one by the “Dixie Songbird,” Billy Cox.

In 1977 Davidson released an LP by mandolin ace Dorsey Harvey (Poca River Records 500).

Davidson established a publishing company, Poca River Music, to deal with that aspect of the recording business. In bluegrass music terms, his most popular published song is Cox’s Sparkling Brown Eyes, as which was notably recorded by Joe Val.

Via an unusual chain of events, Davidson, who Ken Irwin describes as warm and funny, triggered the foundation of the Rounder Record company. The notes for the first LP for the Rounder label provide a little of the story. Marian Leighton recalls his unabashed enthusiasm for the music, as well as his open and welcoming manner, a true eccentric in his early years, in the best sense of the word.

“Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin, two of the three current partners in Rounder, had become interested in traditional music during the early 1960s through the recordings of Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio. As undergraduate roommates, they followed music in the Boston area, often attending shows at the Club 47 in Cambridge. In 1966, their senior year in college, they both began attending the southern fiddler’s conventions at Union Grove and Galax. After one such Galax event, Irwin was picked up hitchhiking (those were the days!) by Ken Davidson. He spent a few days at Davidson’s home in West Virginia, visiting area musicians. Davidson’s Kanawha operation made a favorable impression, and, upon his return to Boston, Irwin commented to Nowlin that they, too, should start a record label. In 1969, in the company of the third Rounder, then Marian Leighton, Ken again visited Ken Davidson, now relocated to Florida. Davidson played the tape of George Pegram heard here, and mentioned that he wasn’t going to put it out. Since Irwin and Leighton were familiar with Pegram from his earlier LP with Parham and his star status at Union Grove, they jumped at the chance to acquire the tapes for their new record label (for $125!).”

Written by Bob Carlin (re-printed with permission)

Fred Bartenstein played on and wrote the liner notes for the afore-mentioned “Dorsey” Harvey album …

“Ken was a fixture in the early bluegrass festival and fiddle convention scene, and a pioneer in recording and releasing lesser-known but wonderful fiddle, old-time, and bluegrass records. He introduced me to the music of West Virginia fiddler Clark Kessinger, and brought Clark and guitarist Gene Meade to a concert I co-produced with Nancy Talbott at Harvard University in 1970. I played guitar on and wrote the liner notes for Ken’s album for Dorsey Harvey (Poca River 500), released in 1977. I especially remember Ken as an enthusiastic correspondent, by letter and by telephone. He would call at all hours of the day and night, excited about some project he was working on. It was people like Ken that laid the foundation for the musical heritage we enjoy today.”

Rick Good, who has enjoyed a 40-year career as a musician, actor, writer, educator and advocate of America’s musical roots, including his work with the Hotmud Family and Rhythm in Shoes, remembers …..

“Like everyone else who was playing bluegrass and traditional music in the Dayton area in the 1970s—and there were a lot of us—Ken Davidson was a unique part of my world. The music he made available to us, back when it was a lot harder to find than it is now, is what we came to know as the real thing. In addition to the hours I spent listening to Kanawha LPs spinning on my turntable, I have one very vivid memory of a motel room on South Dixie Drive in Dayton where Ken introduced us (myself with Suzanne and Dave Edmundson, aka: The Hotmud Family) to Lily May Ledford. We played some sweet music together that afternoon, including I Have No Mother Now, which will always be one of my favorite old-time songs. We all spent the next day together in Ken’s garage recording an album that, sadly, never came to fruition. The memories, however, live on, as does my gratitude for Ken’s life of dedicated work.”

Tom Duffee, who has the rights to those recordings that have not already been sold to Smithsonian/Folkways or to County Records, explains why Davidson’s involvement in musical matters was so short …

“Kens’ mental illness sabotaged his career and his vision. His vision was manifest …. in his early and mid-twenties in which he shepherded those greats of the West Virginia folk styles. But, by the time he was promoting and recording the new generation of old-time practitioners, he was already feeling the effects of the schizophrenia. As a consequence, he continually made poor business decisions and frequently alienated the artists he believed in so much. Ken was a good person, and he continued to have periods of insight and productivity. But the combination of the illness and the meds he was taking prevented him seeing those insights to fruition.

.. [He] was extremely proud of and devoted to his children — a natural enough parental attitude, perhaps. Mental illness is hard on families, as well (and, Ken knew that). Yet, through it all, Ken would always return to the subject of how well sons Brock and Clark were doing.”

In the late 1970s Davidson was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he would struggle with it for the rest of his days along with the Alzheimer’s disease that began to affect him from about 2003.

To date, Tom Duffee has re-issued five CDs on the Bee Balm label and they all remain in print.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.