Welcome to Spring Fed Records
TOUGH MOUNTAIN MUSIC BY
W.L. Gregory and Clyde Davenport
1 Ladies On The Steamboat-1:11 (1)
2 Weeping Willow-1:35 (1)
3 Sally Johnson-1:44 (1)
4 Billy In The Low Ground-1:12 (1)
5 Over The Waves-2:14 (1)
6 Bed Bug Blues-3:30 (2)
7 Pig In The Pen-1:38 (2)
8 Jenny In The Cotton Patch-2:07 (2)
9 Taylor’s Quickstep-1:45 (2)
10 Cumberland Gap-2:00 (2)
11 Sleeping Lulu-2:07 (2)
12 Are You Happy Or Lonesome?-1:24 (2)
13 Rocky Road To Dublin-2:23 (2)
14 Lost John-2:06 (2)
15 Rutherford’s Waltz-2:01 (2)
16 Lime Street Blues-1:30 (3)
17 Rockin’ The Boat-1:40 (4)
18 Monticello-1:38 (4)
(1) W.L. Gregory, fiddle, and Clyde Davenport, banjo. (2) ADD Gary Gregory, guitar. (3) W.L. Gregory, banjo, with Gary Gregory, guitar. (4) W.L. Gregory, banjo solo.
In a sense, this album is a time capsule. It represents the kind of recording that might have resulted if someone had been able to go into the Kentucky hills of 1920 with a modern multi-track recorder and capture the music he found there. This album represents some of the most exciting old time music on record, and some of the most authentic - - for W. L. Gregory and Clyde Davenport are the direct musical heirs of two of southeastern Kentucky’s most influential traditional musicians, Dick Burnett and Leonard. One might even call this record “Burnett and Rutherford in Stereo”; for in many cases it recaptures perfectally the wonderful, distant sounds of that team’s old 78 records of the 1920’s. Yet Gregory and Davenport are not ghosts of Burnett and Rutherford, nor are they slavish imitators trying to recreate a sound; they are immensely talanted and creative musicians who can utilize tradition with out being ensnared by it.
Students of traditional American music have long admired the unique fiddle-banjo stylings of Burnett and Rutherford, and the long series of records they made for Columbia and Gennett in the 1920’s have frequently been taped, studied, and reissued (see, for instance, the comprehensive anthology of their work forthcoming on Rounder Records). Leonard Rutherford, the fiddler, died in 1954, and blind banjoist-singer-fiddler Dick Burnett, now over 90, has long since retired from music; it seemed for a time that the musical tradition they represented had given way to bluegrass and modern country music. But not quite. W.L. and Clyde have kept the flame alive. A few years ago, when I was interviewing Dick Burnett, I asked him to name the best fiddler currently playing in the area. “W.L. Gregory, the local veterinarian,” he answered at once. “Him and Clyde Davenport sound more like Leonard and I did then anyone in the country. They should - - we taught ‘em.”
Later when W.L. and Clyde played for us at Dick’s house, I knew exactly what Dick was talking about. Gregory and Davenport had indeed kept the old tunes and styles alive over the years, vibrantly alive. W.L. had known Leonard Rutherford like a brother, and had actually played with him and dick for thirty years; Rutherford taught W.L. his bowing technique, many of his tunes, and his sense of timing. Dick Burnett taught W.L. a lot about the banjo, more fiddle tunes, and “a heap of good old songs” learned from traveling around the country for years. Clyde Davenport didn’t play much with Burnett and Rutherford directly, but he was a part of the musical scene in the area and absorbed much of their music by hearing them often and talking with them. The result of all this: music preserved by genuine folk tradition, completely free from the self-conciousness that marks so much of the “revivalist” music of today. Gregory and Davenport have continued to play the old music because it pleased them, and because it pleased the people of their region. It is “tough” music in the best sense: lean, spare, sinewy, and played totally without commercial compromise. This is how it’s survived all these years. And that is its great strength and its great - - - - beauty.
Today W.L. and Clyde still live in Monticello, Kentucky, about a mile from the home of Dick Burnett. The Monticello area has always been rich in folk music. In addition to its most noted sons, Burnett and Rutherford, the area has produced musicians like Emry Arthur and his brothers (well-known singers in the 1920’s-1930’s); banjoist Marion Underwood; singer-guitarist John Foster; guitarist Ed Bybey; and from nearby Corbin, John Walker’s fine band. In the 1920’s and 1930’s the cool, shady yard of the old courthouse in Monticello was always filled with pickers and singer on Saturday afternoons; record stores in the town used to wheel Victrolas out on the sidewalks and play the latest Burnett-Rutherford record. Its is a town proud of its history and appreciative of its music.
W.L. GREGORY: “I was born in 1905 at a place called Rocky Branch, about 15 miles southeast of Monticello. When we were young, our family used to play a lot of music. My brother Jim - - he’s dead now - - was a good banjo player. As kids we would play on old homemade fiddles, syrup buckets, wooden necks. I’ve played on ‘em since I was 12 years old. Jim and I, we used to enter a lot of contests in the Monticello area, did pretty good too, up till along in the 1930’s. Then we stopped playing. Just got married off, got separated. Broke up playing, and that was it. Went to doing this veterinarian work about 1926, and I’d have to say that was my occupation. Music’s been a hobby, just played on the side. But I had stopped playing for 18 or 20 years there, and just started getting back to it here these last 6 or 7 years, playing with my grandson and then Clyde here.”
“The first time I saw Leonard Rutherford was in 1923. He was sure a better fiddler than I was - - I was young, and he had me worsted by 7-8 years. When I got in with him, got to playing, me with the fiddle and him with the bow, playing tunes together on the fiddle, that’s the way I began. I began to step it up, stepped it up in his style. I learned most of my style from him. Then I met Dick and travelled with him for a while about 1929-1930, sometimes sort of replacing Leonard; Dick would play banjo, I played violin. We would go out 75-80 miles, be gone a week at at time. We’d set up shows, sell tickets back at the door in those days; didn’t hand out bills, just advertised maybe in stores and restaurants. Once I remember we was playing in King Mountain and they called out from the audience and asked up to play LADIES ON THE STEAMBOAT and we did, and Dick got in a big way, and slapping the hide you know and playing his juice harp (NOTE: Dick Burnett did and uncanny imitation of a juice harp with his throat). And he knocked the thumb screw out of the neck and hit the string loose and it wound around the neck and Dick, he just kept going through it on four strings and finally wound it up and he laughed real big and said, ‘Folks, I knocked my thumb screw out but I finished for you on four strings’, and the house, well, it went wild. Dick was a showman, a real comic in his younger days. He was a great entertainer. And he’d fiddle ever once in awhile. He could play good breakdowns, but was a little rough. BUCKIN MULE, stuff like that. TRAIN 45. When me and Leonard played with him, out somewhere, we would always give him the fiddle on those number cause he’d cut up with it, you know, but come to a slick one that had to be slicked up, he’d hand it back to us then. But he could always attract a crowd.”
“For a while we - - Jim and I - - broadcasted out of Somerset, Perryville, for a little while over WHS in Louisville – as a replacement. Once back in the 1930’s a fellow from Tennessee came up and set us up to makc records, but the deal fell through - - he got in some sort of trouble . . . But I had a record player and we’d get some records and play them. But we learned most of our fiddling from hearing other people. Next to Leonard, my favorite old time fiddler - - I don’t know - - there used to be a fellow named Luther McCart, and I thought he was next to Leonard in those days. He played waltzes all the time, but he was good at it. NOW WHEN he got into those breakdowns, I don’t know whether he could handle me and Davenport or not.” (Luther McCart, from northern Tennessee, was active in the 1920’s around the Knoxville area; he recorded with Hugh Cross and Andy Patterson, among others, and is spoken highly of by several old-timers. Little is known about him, but he did play many waltzes on records; and W.L. is probably right about the breakdowns.
It’s been said that no smoother fiddler ever wielded a bow than Leonard Rutherford. Asked to comment on the “smooth” style he learned from Rutherford, W.L. said. “A regular fiddler will use what you call round notes, try to hit every note in the tune; we used a lot of slide notes, maybe cut out a note or two and put a slur on it. What a singing school teacher would call a circle note, that’s what we use. The main thing is the touch of your fingers, how you dab it to the note. You shove the bow - - the speed the bow goes makes it have the right tone. You have to be a man who uses all the bow for this style - - too many people play with the heel of it, and you have to keep the bow on the strings. You sort of roll off from one note to the other instead of jumping. Lot of the other fiddlers play a zig-zag note. A lot of times in order to get the pretty tone you have to leave off one or two notes and make a long slide - - that’ll make it taste good to you.”
CLYDE DAVENPORT: “I was born at Mt. Pisgah, about 16 miles south, and am about 53. When I was 9 years old I made me a little old fiddle, pulled the hair out of a mule’s tail and made me a bow, got some pine off a pine tree to rosin my bow, and in 2-3 hours I was playin’ a tune or three on it. Started playing the banjo when I was 16; made me one, then played for a long time and got good on it, then quit playing and got to where I couldn’t play much till me and Gregory go together a few years ago. Played my style, without picks, didn’t learn from any one person especially. I heard Burnett and Rutherford, they played downtown here in the courthouse yard, and I been there a whole lot when they was playing . . . Later on I played in Muncie, Indiana on the radio a right smart while. It was with a band called Gene Widthrow and his Radio Pals: they sung, picked guitars, and I played the fiddle. I’ve not got a voice for singing. My vocation? My main vocation is to help Gregory here in his vet work - - do some other odd jobs . . .”
The first five tunes on the album are traditional numbers played as fiddle and banjo duets, in the old style of Burnett and Rutherford. Dick Burnett has descibed this style as “fiddle and banjo playing every note right together,” and it is characterized by the two instruments often playing the lead melody in unison, as opposed to the banjo playing rhythm to the fiddle. The style may well date back to the time before the guitar was introduced as a folk instrument to the southern mountains (ca. 1900-1910). Here Clyde does manage to play some rhythm, but occasionally integrates rhythm with melody and harmony playing. LADIES ON THE STEAMBOAT, BILLY IN THE LOWGROUND, and WEEPING WILLOW TREE were originally recorded by Burnett and Rutherford in 1926-27; LADIES (which probably originated with Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley) was one of the most popular dance numbers of the time. OVER THE WAVES is very common today at fiddling contests, but the unique version of Gregory and Davenport justifies its inclusion here. Many old Kentucky fiddlers tended to take their waltzes at a very fast clip, rushing them to the point where they would even change the time signature in some measures.
BED BUG BLUES is a number W.L. originally learned from Leonard Rutherford, who often sang and played it but for some reason never recorded it. The Rutherford style, with its bent, occasionally sliding notes lends itself well to the blues, and helps us see why W.L. called ALL NIGHT LONG BLUES Leonard’s finest work. W.L. sings the vocal here – the only one on the album; W.L. can sing and play fiddle at the same time, another old and difficult folk skill. (it also, incidentally, causes certain problems in recording such a singer.) Hopefully more of W.L.’s vocal skills will be demonstrated on later LPs. PIG IN THE PEN is associated with Arthur Smith and later with Flatt and Scruggs, but Gregory and Davenport learned their version from local sources. JENNY IN THE COTTON PATCH, “the oldest fiddle tune we know,” is one Clyde picked up from a source long forgotten; it is similar to a tune by the same name played by Chattanooga fiddler Bob Douglas. TAYLOR’S QUICKSTEP was originally recorded by Rutherford and John Foster in January 1929, and has been rarely recorded since then. The tune may have come from Governor Bob Taylor of Tennessee, a champion fiddler and source of several other Burnett-Rutherford fiddle pieces.
Side 2 begins with five more songs associated with Burnett and Rutherford. CUMBERLAND GAP is well-known throughout the South, and this version sounds very much like a 1929 version recorded by Burnett, Rutherford, and guitarist Byrd Moore. SLEEPING LULU, another Kentucky fiddle standard, was recorded by Dick Burnett on fiddle on a rare 1930 Columbia record. ARE YOU HAPPY OR LONESOME? is a Dick Burnett original, first recorded as a vocal, and here presented in a lilting instrumental version. LOST JOHN and ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN are both well-known. RUTHERFORD’S WALTZ was a favorite of Leonard Rutherford’s that he never recorded; W.L. says he has also heard this piece (or one very much like it) called ST. PAUL’S WALTZ. W.L. has also preserved several other rare and unrecorded Rutherford compositions, and plans to record these in a future album.
The last three tunes reveal W.L.’s incredible creativity on the banjo; W.L. considers himself a fiddler first, and a banjoist second, and modestly speaks of these creations as “little old crazy hampered up tunes I made by myself sitting over there on the side of the road.”
LIME STREET BLUES (named for the street in Monticello where W.L. lives) features a slide, knife-style banjo. The banjo is tuned in a straight G, two dimes and a nickle are placed under the bridge, pieces of an old auto antenna placed under the first frett of each string; W.L. gets his slide effect with a 10cc veterinarian syringe (which he finds more effective than the knife he used to use). “I used to beat Dick every time in the banjo contest with that knife; he’d say, ‘What’s that man doing? And they’d say, ‘He’s running something up and down the strings,” Aside from Dock Walsh with old Carolina Tar Heels in the 1920’s, we can’t think of anybody else playing this style of banjo, and W.L has never heard Dock Walsh, though he’s been playing in the style since the 1920’s. “We never learned this from nobody; there’s nobody ever played that.”
ROCKIN’ THE BOAT and MONTICELLO are two more banjo numbers picked with W.L.’s curious “backhand” style. The first (tuned in B) is a “one-step,” while the second (tuned in F) is a beautiful little piece named for the town that has given us so much fine music. Mike Seegar explains, “IN MONTICELLO he is in a weird F tuning, and then he plays harmonics I’ve never heard in my life in that tuning, and then he plays second harmonics as well as the first. Then he plays these unusual figures that are just not done in that tuning.” It is a fitting conclusion to this album: W.L., sitting alone in his house overlooking Monticello and the gentle rolling hills surrounding it; he is content, and he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. But he would like for you to listen, and if you do, you can see why, even as a banjo player, W.L. is a potent musical source. You can see why musicians like Bobby Osborne have made the pilgrimage to W.L.’s house to listen and learn.
ONE FINAL WORD
In the summer of 1974 Charles Wolfe invited me to go with him to Monticello, Kentucky to meet legendary musician, Dick Burnett, and listen to two of Dick’s friends, W.L. Gregory and Clyde Davenport. They played for 2 hours, and it was 2 hours of the finest old time music I’ve ever heard. It just bowled me over. You don’t often think in the 1970’s of making a new discovery of strong old time musicians. For old time feeling, lyricism, smoothness, and the closeness of the fiddle and banjo tone, Gregory and Davenport are unmatched by any such duo these days.
Mr. Gregory’s solo-banjo styles are strictly unique, and follow no previous pattern that I have heard. For instance, in his slide-banjo playing – and this is in itself unique – he parallels some melodic and harmonic patterns similar to Hawaiian blues guitar. But his subtle use of a variety of new types of tone on the banjo are what makes his style. His use of tone, and his phrasing, independent of a repetitive rhythmic figure, are what distinguish his other composed solos as well, which are made all the more unusual by his unorthodox right – and left-hand patterns with his various different banjo tunings. What he’s doing on the banjo is such a departure from either parlor styles or the usually repetitive figure styles heard in the mountains in one of a dozen different styles (whether it’s thumbing or frailing), that it’s kind of a lyric creation.
PRODUCED BY: Steve Davis and Charles K. Wolfe
LINER NOTES BY: Charles K. Wolfe
Recorded in Monticello, Kentucky, September 29, 1974
Photo of Leonard Rutherford Courtesy Dick Burnett
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Mr. & Mrs. Dick Burnett, Mrs. W.L. Gregory, and Mike Seegar
Part of the research for this album was made possible by a Middle Tennessee State University Faculty Research Grant.