Mike Humphreys and Bobby Taylor
Mike Humphreys: Artist with the Bow

Roane Records CD 122

Mike Humphreys: fiddle; various accompianists.

Paddy On the Turnpike/Gray Eagle/Billy In the Low Ground/Stone Mountain Rag/Old Nick/Flop Eared Mule/Forked Deer/Steamboat Hornpipe/Bill Cheatham/Twinkle Little Star/Liberty/Wednesday Night Waltz/Alabama Jubilee/Bill Cheatham/Old Nick/Unnamed/Mike’s Tune/Soldier’s Joy/Done Gone/Leather Britches/Say Old Man/Devil’s Dream/Forked Deer/Blackberry Blossom/Fisher’s Hornpipe/Sugar Foot Rag/Old Jake Gillie/Trombone Rag/Bitter Creek/Listen to the Mockingbird/Mexican Waltz/Poca River Blues/Paddy on the Turnpike/Kanawha March/Done Gone/Hollow Poplar/Red Apple Rag/Sally Ann Johnson.

Bobby Taylor: Kanawha Tradition

Roane Records CD 123

Bobby Taylor: fiddle; Mark Payne, banjo; John Preston: guitar, bass, mandolin; James Summers: guitar; David O’Dell: banjo.

Sally Ann Johnson/Forked Deer/Red Bird/Whiskey Before Breakfast/Temperance Reel/Hell Among the Yearlings/Leather Britches/Fisher’s Hornpipe/Turkey in the Straw/Midnight on the Water/Little Billy Wilson/Billy in the Low Ground/McLeod’s Reel/Smith’s Reel/Elswick’s Farewell/St. Anne’s Reel.

I got my registration for Mt. Airy last week, and I was reading the fine print about what Mrs. Braddock defines as a band, and of course it turns out that you can’t be an old-time band and have a three-finger style banjo player in the ensemble.  This is evolution, and we are not surprised as we watched it happen.  Trying to make the o.t./b.g. distinction, particularly around the Round Peak magnetic field, is particularly difficult, as Round Peak music has always been a kind of parallel universe to Bill Monroe’s sphere of influence.  Kenny Baker and Tommy Jarrell were friends, the blue note Big Mon tossed into the cauldron at midnight the Jarrells and Cockerhams had independently savored and found satisfactory.

Still, as old time became Old Time, the festivals had to figure out some way to divide the band category, and that ole 5 strang was obviously played different-like.  But the fact is, this practicality obfuscates the music itself, and it’s nowhere more clear than in the fiddle tradition Bobby Taylor here calls Kanawha.  Back in the ‘60s, old man Clark Kessinger came out of the mountain and just knocked the Union Grove competition flat on it’s A**, until finally they had to just retire him.  Clark had him a hard driving guitar picker named Gene Meade, and various 3-finger banjo players backing him up.  His fiddling was a run away freight train, precise and articulate and as invincible as a medley of Ali combinations.  Although there wasn’t anything else like Mr. Kessinger at Union Grove, in truth he represented a great fiddling tradition that stretches back to Eck Robertson, up to John Summers, and was to some degree a sample of fiddling around Charleston WV at that time.

Kessinger took Bobby Taylor on as a pupil after he stopped travelling down to NC, and Bobby learned his lessons well.  His CD was recorded in 1988, with some more tracks added in 1997, perhaps when a transfer was made from analog to digital medium.  He plays many of “Kessinger’s tunes,” that is, that fairly common repertoire of American tunes shared by many fiddlers in the first half of the 20th Century.  He also plays a few tunes that he might have learned from the cross pollination of musics that was going on by the ‘80s—“St. Anne’s Reel” being perhaps a case in point, as well as Benny Thomisson’s gorgeous waltz, “Midnight on the Water,” which upon hearing seems to simply demand learning wherever it travels.   Bobby plays all these selections flawlessly; the CD would make a fine source for anyone wanting to learn these tunes the “right” way.  His ability to execute some of the flashier aspects of Kessinger technique is almost as fun to listen to as it is to watch (which has been my good fortune).  If Bobby will just find himself a black suit and a bowler, he will have attained sartorial success as a Kanawha fiddler.  Otherwise he’s already there.

Mike Humphreys seems to be wearing that bowler in the cover photo of his CD.  Humphreys is Bobby Taylor’s cousin, but he was more or less Clark Kessinger’s contemporary—ten or so years Kessinger’s junior--and died in 1986.  These recordings were made at various times in a life Humphreys dedicated to fiddling.  He made a wise choice for his art.  There are a few repeats in the list marking performances at different moments in his career.  A block of 15 cuts was made with and by Emerson Summers in the late 1960s—probably during Humphreys’ last great playing years.  As Bobby Taylor states in the notes: “In the years before his death, Mike’s hearing deteriorated and many people who heard him during those last years did not get the scope of the great Mike Humphreys.  Along with Ed Haley, Clark Kessinger, and French Mitchell, Mike was one of the great West Virginia fiddlers.  Until now his music has been enjoyed only by the people who knew him, but now he can finally take his rightful place in history and continue to add quality to the lives of all who love great fiddling.”

Humphreys’ CD is a real joy to listen to, and it amounts to a readymade field trip.  Pop it in the player and get to work.  I don’t want to pick out too many gems since really all these tunes are wonderful, but Mike’s “Poca River Blues,” a tune Kessinger also enjoyed doing a turn on, is just mindblowing.  Humphreys has a great bow arm; he can play short stroke, slurs of any length he cares to for the needs of the melody, rhythmic variations, double shuffles enough for tastefulness, and not enough to raise your blood pressure.  His tempos remind you that these tunes can fly a lot faster than the Spruce Goose and have way more hang time.  A particular musical detail I enjoyed is the way he will play two measure closing “tags” that reflect the chordal details of the tune they’re attached to.  That is, if a tune has a minor chord, he passes through notes appropriate to that chord in his run.  Although there aren’t examples of his playing behind singers on this CD, I’ll bet he played great breaks too.  Huge thanks are due to Bobby Taylor and the various other folks who got this one out.  It belongs in all serious fiddling collections, and if you play you’d better burn yourself a spare before you drop the disk on the floor of your pickup when the player spits it out just when you’re reaching for a handful of fries and trying to shift down for the light that just changed on you.

-–Bill Hicks

To Order: Roane Records, PO Box 5294, West Logan WV 25601 www.fiddletunes.com

(published 2004 in the Old Time Herald)

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May 11, 2004