Recent reissue collections from the Virginia-based Rebel and County record labels are in this week’s Compact Capsules spotlight. Since the early 1960s, the two labels have been responsible for a host of bluegrass and old timey releases with Rebel sticking pretty much to the bluegrass side of things and County Records releasing mostly historic collections of old time string band music. Each label has been busy on the reissue front as of late and this week we look at a handful of recent releases from the labels.
High Lonesome Red
When talk turns to landmark songs of bluegrass, tunes such as “Ruby (Are You Mad)” and “Once More” have to rank as two of the all-time greatest in the genre. The voices behind those two classics? Why a couple of brothers called Osborne, as in Sonny and Bobby, along with another fellow named Red Allen. Whereas the Osborne Brothers were fairly established recording artists by the point those songs hit the high water mark in 1956, Pigeon Roost, Kentucky native Red Allen was still a relative unknown. He had joined fellow Kentuckians the Osborne Brothers’ band earlier that year for the recording session that yielded “Ruby”. His contribution to that song alone would establish Allen as a vocalist of considerable merit. Allen would remain with the Osbornes through 1958 contributing vocals, guitar, and mandolin to a number of the duo’s classic sides. After parting ways, he would relocate to Washington, D.C. which at that time was becoming a hotbed for bluegrass music. Allen played with a variety of artists before hooking up with the fledgling Rebel Records label in 1963. Unfortunately, what with country music and its various offshoots falling out of favor at that time what with the British Invasion in full swing, the timing for Allen, who was arguably at the creative peek in his career, was unfortunate what with bluegrass music, like country, relegated to the backburner of popular music. The collection Keep On Going: The Rebel & Melodeon Recordings (Rebel Records REB-CD-1127) is one of two new reissue collections focusing on Allen’s prime sides for those labels. It gathers all of his recordings for Rebel and Melodeon including early demos into one comprehensive set of 23 tracks. The collection features Allen in three different configurations. It begins with six cuts featuring Allen and long time comrade Frank Wakefield four of which were demo recordings for Rebel Records followed by two additional single-only tracks, “Little Birdie” and “Faded Memory”. The next 13 selections are from his 1965 album for Melodeon Records called The Solid Bluegrass Sounds of the Kentuckians. That band featured Allen on vocals and guitar along with Bill Yates on tenor vocals and occasional bass, Warren Yates on mandolin, Bill Emerson on the banjo, and Pete Kuykendall on bass. The final four tracks on the collection, also from 1965, were billed as Red Allen & the Kentuckians. In all, it is traditional bluegrass at its finest.
Lonesome and Blue: The Complete County Recordings (Rebel Records REB-CD-1128) is the second of two Allen collections. It brings together 25 selections two of which are previously unreleased recordings taken from two albums that he made for County Records with his Kentuckians band. The first 12 tracks on Lonesome and Blue come from the 1966 album Bluegrass Country. Up to that point, the County Records label had released only field recordings on LP. Under the production of a young bluegrass enthusiast named David Grisman, Bluegrass Country represented the first studio recording endeavor by County Records. The recording marked the introduction of a young fiddler named Richard Greene who would go onto establish himself as one of the greats of the second generation bluegrassers. Most noteworthy about these tracks is the large number of country songs that Allen choose to apply the bluegrass treatment, songs from the likes of Ernest Tubb (“Are You Waiting Just For Me”), Kitty Wells, the Louvin Brothers, and Jack Anglin of Johnny & Jack fame, to go with ‘grass fare from notables such as Bill Monroe and Curly Seckler. In the hands of Allen and his Kentuckians, it is nothing but hillbilly heaven. The remaining 13 tracks come from Allen’s second album for County titled simply Red Allen & the Kentuckians. Once again, the mix is country and bluegrass songs given the Kentuckian treatment. Notable with respect to these tracks is the enlistment of Mr. Grisman as mandolinist in Allen’s band as well as a young Jerry McCoury (brother of Del) on bass. Simply put, the material found on these two collections is Red Allen in all his glory at a point in the bluegrass timeline where despite the music struggling for identity, it arguably never sounded as good.
When it comes to fiddle players in bluegrass and traditional country music, it does not get much better than cats like Kenny Baker and Bobby Hicks. By their lonesome each a powerful force, put them together and the results are potentially staggering. That is exactly what happened 1980 on the album Darkness On the Delta. The all-instrumental recording featured these maestros of the fiddle and bow working their magic together on 11 numbers ranging from each player’s one-time employer Bill Monroe (“Roanoke”, “Louisville Breakdown”, “Tallahassee” and “Panhandle Country”) to swing king Bob Wills (“Faded Love”) to traditional tunes such as “Westphalia Waltz” to even a few Baker originals. Featuring, the original album in its entirety, the reissue of Darkness On the Delta (County Records CO-CD-2733) is one most welcome collection of fiddle tunes.
Harp Singing – What’s that?
The final two releases getting the Compact Capsules look-see this week focus on something called Sacred Harp singing. If you happened to see the motion picture Cold Mountain, you may be familiar with Sacred Harp singing which was featured prominently in the film. With origins dating back to the 17th century, the rich tradition of Sacred Harp singing arose out of American religious music traditions of shape note singing that rural and/or remote settlements used as a means to convey their religious expressions. Two new compilations from County Records look at the early recordings of Sacred Harp singing. The first of these is the collection Heaven’s My Home: 1927-1928 (County Records CO-CD-3531) which brings together xx selections from the late 1920s and early 1930s from the Birmingham, Alabama-based group Allisons’ Sacred Harp Singers. Re-mastered from the original 78 RPM recordings and packaged with rare photos and detailed liner notes by experts John Bealle and Joyce Cauthen, Heaven’s My Home is nothing short of a real deal history lesson on this unique tradition.
The second release is a various artists collection called Religion Is Fortune – Sacred Harp Singing (County Records CO-CD-3531) which features vintage recordings of the style from groups located primarily in Georgia and Alabama. Like Heaven’s My Home, this collection also focuses on recordings made in the 1920s & 1930s. Despite many of them being made in the then recording hotbed of Atlanta, Georgia, the common thread running through each of the tracks is the distinctively rural character each group brings to these hymns. Also quite evident is the emotional range of the performances which take the listener from the high-spirited “Hallelujah” by the Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp Singers to the mournful kind of melancholy haze hanging over “Journey Home” as performed by Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers. Also like the previous collection, the recordings gathered for Religion Is Fortune are all re-mastered from the original 78s and packaged with rare photos. Liner notes, and they are extensive, come courtesy of Sacred Harp singing expert David Warren Steel who teaches music and Southern culture at the University of Mississippi. (County/Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, or www.rebelrecords.com)