Dead guys rule

The Red Fox Chasers kick ass. Seriously. Why they aren’t one of the most popular and celebrated of the early stringbands is a mystery to me. But I have a feeling this beautiful collection of their work will be turning a lot more folks on to this amazing band. [editor’s note: Tompkins Square released I’m Going Down to North Carolina: The Complete Recordings of the Red Fox Chasers [1928-31] earlier this year]

The four members of the Red Fox Chasers were all from northwestern North Carolina – Alleghany, Wilkes and Surry counties, specifically – and they shared repertoire with other regional folks like Charlie Poole and Ernest Stoneman. But, for those of you who have listened to those other artists, don’t be discouraged by the many familiar song titles in this collection. The Chasers have their own take on it all, and it’s so worth checking out.

This two-disc collection starts off with a cranking version of “Arkansas Traveler” that just bowled me over. These are some of the most modern-sounding dead guys I’ve ever heard. Their playing is tight, tough and fresh. And they’re not just great instrumentalists – all four are truly powerful singers, whose strong harmonies will challenge the common misperception that old-time music equals fiddle tunes.

As someone who has listened to loads of 78 rpm reissues, I really appreciate the thoughtful sequencing of this set. The music is treated as music, not as archival material, which is refreshing in a “complete recordings” collection. While the Red Fox Chasers had diversity in their repertoire – gospel numbers, fiddle tunes, sentimental songs, love songs and ballads – the flow of the album is also varied by a few wonderful duets by band members Bob Cranford (harmonica) and A.P. Thompson (guitar), who had their own recording session in 1931. Producer Christopher King, whose tasteful treatment of reissue material is well-known to old-time music geeks like myself, also had the good sense to put the “skit” records (“Makin’ Licker in North Carolina”, Parts 1-4) at the ends of the CDs, where they can be enjoyed as charming bonus tracks instead of interrupting the otherwise rolling flow of the discs.

I have my favorites, of course. The original songs by Thompson and fiddler Guy Brooks are magical. “Stolen Love” gracefully moves between time signatures, and “Two False Lovers” has some goosebump-inducing chord choices. The song “Virginia Bootleggers” got Brooks kicked out of his church for recording a gospel melody with lyrics about illicit liquor production – written by the Chasers’ banjo player, Paul Miles – but I’d say it was well worth it.

The sound quality for most of the cuts on this collection suits me fine, as the music is clearly the priority here, and for the most part it sings through. It’s sad that one of the most beautiful tracks (“Looking to my Prayer”) is the most marred by record noise, but it makes some sense when compared with the ultra-clean sound of “The Murder of the Lawson Family” (which lends that track a creepy immediacy). It’s obvious which of those was most loved.

With Christopher King’s thoughtful production, pleasingly quirky design by Susan Archie, and concise-yet-enlightening notes by Kinney Rorrer, this Tompkins Square release is the perfect gift for the old-time music fan in your life. Or, for my fellow old-time geeks out there, this could be just the collection to convince your fearful friends and family that dead guys don’t have to be scary.

The terrifically talented fiddler Rayna Gellert recently shared the stage with Dave Rawlings at the Orange Peel. Learn more about her projects here.

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One thought on “Dead guys rule

  1. boatrocker

    Nice stuff- I just found some material on their myspace. Pretty cool how a bunch of dead guys can maintain a myspace page too. It turns out A.P. Thompson’s nickname was “Fonzie”. It’s nice to hear some good music without incorrect labels for record bin purposes like “bluegrass” or “contra” music. It sounds like good ol Southern fried old time and the guitar playing is a nice nod to contemporaries like Riley Puckett and the dude from the Stripling Bros.

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