Martin Stephenson – In the Sweet, Sunny South
When punk hit England in the mid-1970s, its caterwaul carried more than enough volume for its echoes to reach the small northern town of Washington, where Martin Stephenson was inspired to pick up a guitar and give it a go. After some early gigging and much musical absorption, Stephenson found himself in the role of bandleader; he and his band the Daintees had a ten-year run.
Their first two records, 1986’s Boat To Bolivia and ’88’s Gladsome, Humour & Blue, were both passionate, genre-shy marvels. (Interestingly, in Stephenson’s liner notes to Boat To Bolivia, he describes the song “Candle In The Middle” as an “alternative Country and Western poem” — perhaps the first use of a term that wouldn’t become common till the following decade.)
Next up was 1990’s lovely Salutation Road, an attempt to reach a wider audience. Recorded in Los Angeles with Dwight Yoakam producer Pete Anderson at the helm, the album further spread Stephenson’s name; however, the frequent marathon trips to the west coast and the music biz’s circus atmosphere began to take their toll.
Soon after, Stephenson found himself moving further and further from the business part of music. “When I was younger, I was cocooned in the industry,” he observes, betraying a poet’s gift for metaphor. “I found later on in life, when I started traveling with a lighter step, you have a way of making connections with people that would have been blocked before.”
This newfound freedom led to the formation of a rockabilly band named the Toe-Rags in Newcastle, England, as well as time spent in Ireland gigging with regional musicians, the latter collaboration resulting in an album titled Beyond The Leap, Beyond The Law. He moved to Scotland in the mid-1990s, but eventually his sense of adventure took him on an extended sojourn to North Carolina and Virginia, where he recorded a two-disc set titled The Haint Of The Budded Rose with a diverse gathering of traditional musicians from the region.
That journey actually began one afternoon when the Toe-Rags were en route to a show. The bass player tossed the bored-looking Stephenson a book, The Life And Times Of Charlie Poole, a biography of the legendary early-1900s banjo picker. “I loved it. I just got right into it,” Stephenson recalls. “And when I came to the story of Posey Rorer [the fiddle player in Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers and the great-uncle of The Life And Times Of Charlie Poole author Kinney Rorrer] at the end of his career, and how he gave his fiddle away to pay a whiskey bill, it just blew me away.” So moved was Stephenson that he wrote a song about the incident, “The Day Posey Rorer Sold His Fiddle”.
Functioning as the main trans-Atlantic bridge for Stephenson’s visit to North Carolina was a young Tarheel named Dolph Ramseur. In the early ’90s, Ramseur, a rabid fan of Stephenson’s first two records, placed a rather gutsy international call. “I got this message on me answering machine, this guy saying he was a retired tennis player and he wanted to come over and get his foot in the door in the music industry,” recounts Stephenson with a laugh coated in fondness. “I thought it was a joke.”
A decade later, the two finally connected over the internet thanks to a mutual love of Piedmont blues and Doc Watson. When Stephenson sent Ramseur a copy of “The Day Posey Rorer Sold His Fiddle” and Ramseur, in turn, got a copy of the song into the hands of the descendants of Poole and Rorer, it was all over but the passport renewal. “We both knew that this would be a great cross-pollination of music,” says Ramseur. “Martin would bring his songs over to share with others, and then take back songs that he learned.”
At its rustic but powerfully beating heart, The Haint Of The Budded Rose is about two groups of musicians: Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers, and the four generations of players who joined Stephenson in the recording of the album, from teenagers Taylor Rorrer and Jeremy Stephens to nonagenarians Etta Baker, the grand lady of Piedmont blues, and fiddler Ross Brown. The material focuses on public domain tunes, rounded out by a smattering of spoken-word pieces and the occasional original song from Stephenson and Charlotte-area singer-songwriters David Childers and Michael Reno Harrell.
The album, released on Ramseur Records, was made with just a minidisc recorder and a $60 stereo microphone; all the songs were captured in one take with no overdubbing. “That’s how Martin and I felt this project should be done,” states Ramseur without even a hint of a second guess; indeed, the rocking-chair creaks and root-cellar intimacy give the collection a timeless quality.
Perhaps most importantly, the project’s goal of cross-pollination was realized, with Stephenson’s favorite memory providing just one example: “Ross Brown had been to Scotland once, Edinburgh in 1961. His dream was to hear a Scottish fiddler playing one of his tunes. So I took a recording of a tune that he used to play a lot called “November Fields” back to Scotland. I got a friend up here who’s a good fiddler to play the tune, and then I sent it back to Ross. He was over the moon.”