Just how much of our history in music has fallen by the wayside, filed away in some attic, rotting under some old red brick building basement, or just plain destroyed by folks cleaning house? No telling. Thankfully, there is now and has been for some time, a revival of the old time string band music of America, in the form of mountain string bands, bluegrass bands, jug bands, punk grass bands, minstrel bands, wait, now what? Minstrel bands? How about Banjo Orchestra? All that and more make up The Old 78’s. The Old 78s are keeping it alive and keeping it real when it comes to early banjo and fiddle music. We’re not talking “chicken pickin” either.
The Old 78s have been Carole Ann Rose and Curly Miller from Kingston, AR. For this album, “The Women Wear No Clothes At All”, they have teamed up with Ray and Melanie Palmer to form a new quartet by the same name. This endeavor also includes world renowned ambassador of banjo, Clark Buehling on tracks 3 (also arranged by Clark), 8 and 16, banjo man Paul McGowen and harmonica man Seth Shumate, both of the old time string band, Shout Lulu, on tracks 2 and 12. "The Women Wear No Clothes At All", celebrates this collaboration and explores Ragtime, Early Jazz, Jug, Old Time and Early Banjo tunes to create a fun, interesting, entertaining and informative collection of early 1900’s ragtime, minstrel, old timey fiddle/banjo tunes, recorded using Curly’s meticulously researched and masterfully performed fiddle and banjo, Carole Ann’s unique percussive and driving claw-hammer rhythm, banjo pieces and harmonies by Ray and Paul, Seth’s harmonica and Melanie’s great big saxophone!, arranged in traditional banjo orchestral settings.
Do not expect to hear bluegrass Scruggs style picking although, The Old 78’s have garnered praise from the likes of Tony Trischa, "To hear some of this unique sound, check out The Old 78's...These folks are great"! — Tony Trishka in The Banjo Newsletter and Peter Ostroushko - "I didn't realize that banjos could be so entertaining!"
The album starts out with the 1927 “Beaver Slide Rag” featuring Curly on fiddle, Ray on banjo-mando, Carole Anne on 6 string banjo and Melanie(Mel) on baritone sax. From there it just gets more interesting. You can actually close your eyes and be taken back to the twenties, silent movies, dances, parlors. These folks could be transported back to the day and blend right in. Track 2, the title track, “The Women Wear No Clothes At All” is a raucous tune with the whole band singing the line “The women wear no clothes at all, they get there just the same” intermittently throughout the song.
For some reason I hear this tune and see Charlie Chaplin chasing nude women around a fire house. The album cover is like a trip back in time with sepia toned photos of the band in period clothing except for the cover in which “The Women (appear to) Wear No Clothes At All”! Each track is carefully explained as to the origin of the tune and the contributions of each musician.
There are generously, 18 tracks which range from Vaudevillian to classically orchestrated to quiet contemplative, like track 14, “Babe” from 1927, or track 8, “Get Off Your Money”.
This is a great cd to put on “shuffle” and let your mind wander.
Probably the most other-worldly oddity about this particular configuration of musicians is that they all live in the Ozarks of NW Arkansaw. It’s not a common thing or an easy thing to find like minded musicians in a remote area let alone like minded musicians who share a love for the same period genre. The Old 78s website, www.theold78s.com is loaded with all the information about how these folks came together and also about the wide range of banjos and other instruments used by this unique and talented group.
The Old 78s are nationally and internationally known and respected. Curly Miller, Carole Anne Rose and their children, live on a beautiful farm located at the headwaters of Sweden Creek, in the tall peaks of the Ozark Mountains in Northwest Arkansas. Their remote home is in a high mountain valley, completely encircled by mountains and blessed with many springs. Together they grow Certified Organic Log-Grown Shiitake mushrooms, herbs, and edible flowers, along with most of their family food. They have performed as a duet all over the country. Curly and Carole Anne were instructors for the 2005 Ashokan Southern Week, 2004 Swannanoa Gathering Old Time week, for fiddle and banjo workshops at The Ozark Folk Center since 1990 and have been invited to teach at Mars Hill in 2009. They have been the featured dance band for the annual Dance Week-End for the Arkansas Country Dance Society since 1991. They've been playing for the Fayetteville Traditional Dancers monthly dance since 1993, as well as for regional contra and square dances in St. Louis, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Memphis, and Springfield (MO). The duo has been invited on several East Coast dance tours including one with Beth Molaro in North Carolina playing for dances in Asheville, Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill and at The Farmer's Ball and with Peter Lippincott for dances in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and in Washington, DC. They have played the Farmer's Ball many times and for festival dances including at Merlefest, Wheatland, Winfield, and have been invited to play for the Clifftop square dance 2009.
The two musicians have been selected several times to Showcase at The North American Folk Alliance annual conference and also play for the dances at that event. Curly and Carole Anne have played for Irish step-dancing performances and dance competitions for The McCafferty School of Irish Dance (the host of three annual national dance competitions) and combine their Celtic repertoire with dance and concert performances. Curly's research has uncovered many antiquated Irish and Scottish tunes which they play for Irish Dance groups for performances and competitions. Their current fascination with the Ragtime, Charleston, Jug Band, and Jazz music of the early 1900's has created an entirely new repertoire featuring banjos of all sizes, Curly's 24K gold-plated kazoo, and amusing songs of the era!
Carole Anne took accordion lessons as a child, switched to the guitar as a teen, took classical guitar lessons as an adult, and did the protest and folk song "thing" in the 1960's. After meeting Curly, her childhood love of the banjo was rekindled as a result of being able to listen to great Old Time and historic tunes. Together they began to play Classic banjo pieces along with Old Time fiddle and guitar tunes. Carole Anne liked the bass-note rocking guitar-rhythm and loved clawhammer-style banjo, so she combined both styles in her own unique playing style. The duo then began the quest to find the right banjo(s) for the job.
Ray also started at an early age but on instruments in the violin family. He has been a member of various symphonies including the Gulf Coast Symphony, the Topeka Symphony, and the Salt Lake Civic Orchestra and currently plays with the Arkansas Philharmonic and the Symphony Orchestra of Northwest Arkansas. His interest in The Old 78's style of music was sparked while playing with the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra whose specialty was accompanying silent films from the early 1900's with period-correct music arranged for a small orchestral ensemble (and some bizarre sound effect implements). Since then, Ray has been a part of various groups of Old Time musicians, playing fiddle, mandolin, and the three-string cello, making his an extremely knowledgeable contribution to the collaboration. After graduating from the Violin Making School of America, Ray opened The Palmer Violin Shop in 2008, (www.PalmerViolins.com), making violins, violas, and cellos using only traditional methods and materials, plus providing repair services to professional musicians, teachers and students from across the region. His vast experience in complex string music makes him uniquely qualified to add his musical perspective and talent to The Old 78's! The Old 78s adds a fullness and rich musicianship that this early 1900s music had when originally performed, "back in the day"! Ray's ability to match the melody, create counter melodies, and improvise on both the fiddle and banjo-mandolin adds an entirely new dimension and certainly spices things up.
Melanie has performed with Wynton Marsalis and Robin Eubanks but her long musical background begins at age 6 (on piano) and includes playing the sax for 13 years. She has a B.A. in music (saxophone performance) from the U of A and played baritone sax in the UA Jazz Ensemble plus bari, tenor and alto sax and clarinet in various wind ensembles over the years. Most recently, she is the baritone saxophonist for the Arkansas Winds Concert Band. In The Old 78's, Melanie plays the bari sax for the Classic Banjo repertoire and for Ragtime, Charleston, Early Jazz and Jug tunes. It might be hard to imagine, but that big saxophone CAN sound like a jug! Melanie's baritone sax powerfully delivers the bass notes that any tuba, bowed bass, or jug player could wish for. And the bari contributes just the right amount of Klezmer to bring the band's Romanian and Eastern European repertoire back in time about one hundred years. Her skills are a powerful addition to the band's Romanian pieces and the (extremely large) cello banjo is a perfect for their Old Time repertoire. These two outstanding musicians have played and enjoyed the same repertoire as Curly and Carole Anne and fate has brought them together to continue the fun!
In 2007, Curly and Carole Anne installed a recording studio based on the technology of the Royer Ribbon mics. Their intent was to create a 3-dimensional stereo image of acoustic music that sounds as if you are listening to a live performance. And, according to the reviews so far, the "live sound" is just one of the many outstanding features of their recording projects! They have completed several projects including two recordings for Paul and Seth’s band, Shout Lulu (I have both of these, the mix is really great!)www.shoutlulu.com), one for David Scrivner, Alvie Dooms & Karen Kraft, and their own long-awaited CD in collaboration with Clarke Buehling (of The Skirtlifters)! called “Old Time Fiddle Rags, Classic and MInstrel Banjo”. This CD is available on CD Baby and features flatted-key fiddle rags, Classic Banjo orchestra pieces including the Cello Banjo (www.goldtone.com), and Minstrel pieces from Clarke's highly regarded music collection. (www.theskirtlifters.com)
"I can't say enough good things about engineer Curly Miller's method of live recording with ribbon microphones... I think this is the third time I've praised Miller's ability to achieve an organic sound..." writes Mark Bilyeu (of Big Smith) for The Ozarks Mountaineer.
I recently asked Carole Ann Rose why they chose this particular genre. “Many of the Old Time country fiddlers were drawn to the popular rags of the day and we, like them, have been working on Rags for years from various fiddle and banjo repertoires. This style of fiddle tune is deeply rooted in the Classic Banjo and Piano Rag traditions that developed concurrently from the 1890s through to the Charleston, Dixieland, and Jug band music, among others. The Jazz Era and music from both black and white musicians of the early 1900's further developed this sound, attracting audiences and dancers of many stripes. Our current mission has been focused on bringing select Early Jazz pieces that still have a Ragtime bent, into the string band format. Curly is finding 1920's piano music, brass and woodwind band pieces, writing it out for our fiddle/banjo configuration to find out if they are playable in the string band format. We are now playing several of them with our current band-mates Ray and Mel. In addition, we are working on an East Coast collaboration with Rich Hartness on resophonic guitar, Brian Schmeal on banjo mandolin, Edwin Wilson on resonator ukelele and Tolly Tollefson on banjo ukelele. Our East Coast musician pals are joined to us (informally) with the name The Retro Ramblers, as we came in 3rd at Clifftop's Neo-Trad band contest with all three tunes transcribed and arranged by Curly!”
If you’ve never listened to this type of acoustic music, I strongly suggest you broaden your horizons and explore. If you have, then treat to yourself to the masterfully performed and arranged music of The Old 78s. The more I listen to this recording, the more I find myself wandering around singing to myself, “The Women Wear No Clothes At All!” Give these folks a listen and check out their performance schedule at www.theold78s.com and see them perform on youtube!