Rodney McElrea remembered

Thomas James Rodney McElrea of Omagh, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland, one of the world’s foremost collectors of recordings and other material relating to country music, passed away on June 25, 2017, while in Altnagelvin Hospital, Londonderry. Given the era that piqued his interest initially, old-time and bluegrass music styles were among those he studied and archived.

McElrea had a stroke during the previous winter from which he never fully recovered. 

He became smitten by the music in 1952 when he bought his first Hank Williams 78 rpm record. 

Over the years since, McElrea was an avid collector of 78 rpm records, LPs, 45 rpm records, tapes and CDs (both singly and in boxed sets), books, letters, photos and all manner of memorabilia and ephemera. He subscribed to country music periodicals and magazines and corresponded with like-minded enthusiasts and collectors for most of his life.

In 1962 McElrea along with friend Charles G Newman, as co-editors, started Country News and Views which became a quarterly journal consisting of articles and record reviews by both editors and guest writers, one of whom was well-established American collector David Freeman. 

About this same time, he made his first trip to America visiting the RCA Records’ building in New York, where he was given access to their files and commenced work on his discography of the Original Carter Family recordings. 

In 1965, with Freeman as mentor, the two travelled together to North Carolina to research the life of Charlie Poole and met Poole’s wife, Lou Emma, guitarist Norman Woodlief and Cliff Rorrer, a nephew of the Ramblers’ fiddler Posey Rorrer. On seeing that Poole’s grave didn’t have a headstone, McElrea set about collecting donations to rectify this absence. The present headstone was erected with funds collected from the readers of Country News and Views by McElrea, who dedicated it in person. The inscription reflects these contributions.

Freeman’s connection with Country News and Views led to him making his first sales of the old-time, early country and bluegrass music records that he collected and later produced to customers in the British Isles, to readers of that journal.  

Tony Friel, Andy Gordon, and Rodney McElrae - photo courtesy of Richard Hurst

McElrea made several pilgrimages to the USA, meeting country music notables Sara and Maybelle Carter, Hank Snow, and many more of his heroes over the years. 

In recent years he gave the McAuley Lecture – a regular feature of the annual Bluegrass Music Festival at the Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh – talking about subjects such as ‘More travels and Tales’, ‘The Crooked Road’, ‘Women in Bluegrass,’ and (in 2012), ‘country songs about the Titanic’.

As a tribute to McElrea, the Folk Park renamed this year’s (2017) lecture ‘The McLecture’, commemorating him as well as the late folklorist Tony McAuley.

McElrea was made the subject of a thesis by Eve Olney BA (Hons) in her Doctoral submission to the Dublin Institute of Technology (April 2012). In it she reveals “His contagious enthusiasm, immense knowledge and skills as a storyteller”. 

In her experience the question regarding what would happen to his collections on his passing came early (in 2005), during the first of his McAuley Lectures. She references in her thesis “the possibility of the archive being donated to the Ulster American Folk Museum but neither party is committed to a definite decision regarding its future.”

As for the collections now that McElrea has passed, according to Richard Hawkins, “The herculean task of organizing Rodney’s collection is being carried out by Jim MacArdle (founder of the Watery Hill Boys band of Drogheda, Co. Louth), in consultation with Rodney’s family.”

Hawkins in his Bluegrass Ireland Blog says of McElrea … 

” [he] should be considered a national treasure by enthusiasts of bluegrass, old-time, and country music generally in this island. Rodney’s unique collection of recordings, documents, and other memorabilia, and his equally unique and encyclopaedic personal knowledge of the music’s history and the people connected with it, have put his contributions to the Tony McAuley Lectures series among the most memorable features of annual festivals at the Ulster American Folk Park for many years now. 

For those who knew Rodney, he will be sorely missed because there is literally no one to take his place.”

Bluegrass Today acknowledges, with many thanks, the assistance of Richard Hawkins in completing this remembrance. 

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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.