Review: Sen. Robert Byrd- Mountain Fiddler (reissue)
On one of my favorite albums of all time, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers eloquently describes what he calls “the duality of the southern thing”. The tune in question, really more of a spoken word piece, describes “The Three Great Alabama Icons”: Bear Bryant, Ronnie Van Zant, and George Wallace. Yet the man who most embodied the duality of the Southern thing was from West Virginia, not Alabama and it is impossible to discuss his career as a legislator or his recently reissued album without mentioning that fact.
Born two years before George Wallace, Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan in the early ’40s eventually attaining the position of Exalted Cyclops. By the time he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, he was no longer a Klansman. However, in the 1960s, he personally filibustered the Civil Rights Act for 14 hours, and voted against the Voting Rights Act, and the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court justice, and although not a race issue, strongly supported the Vietnam War. But in 1968, things began to change. That year he voted in favor of the Fair Housing Act and by the end of his life he had been pivotal in preservation of the Martin Luther King Memorial, had attained a 100 percent approval rating from the NAACP, endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, been named the Person of the Year by PETA, and became the Senate’s biggest critic of the Bush administration after voting against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, attempting to filibuster the vote for the Iraq War and later voting against it. He called the Commander-in-Chief “a deskbound president who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech” and wrote two books on the subject: We Stand Passively Mute and Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.
I live at one of the southernmost points in the state of Ohio. Although we are closer to Kentucky, my local television news comes from Huntington, West Virginia and thus, over the years I have heard a lot about Senator Byrd and his 58 years on Capitol Hill. What I did not know until recently was that Byrd was also a fiddler and had recorded an album in 1977 while serving as Senate Majority Leader (it was recorded in his Capitol Hill office). Upon discovering that County Records was reissuing the album, I inquired about it and they were kind enough to send me a copy (in fairness to the label, you should know that a reissue was planned before the Senator’s death late last month; they just hurried things along afterward).
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much from the record. Hell, everybody from William Shatner to Regis Philbin has been able to use their celebrity to get a record deal. Believe it or not, I actually own a vinyl LP from Colonel Sanders’ Mandolin Band. Swear to God. Then I read the liner notes and discovered that not only was it produced by Barry Poss, who would found Sugar Hill Records a year later (and apparently wanted to record Byrd after hearing some recordings he had made for the Library of Congress), but featured accompaniment from three members of The Country Gentlemen: James Bailey, Spider Gilliam, and last but not least, Doyle Lawson.
Most of the tunes here will be familiar to fans of bluegrass or old-time music: folk songs like “Cumberland Gap,” “Roving Gambler,” and “Rye Whiskey,” string band standards such as “Cripple Creek,” “There’s More Pretty Girls than One”, and “Turkey in the Straw,” and fiddle classics like “Durang’s Hornpipe,” “Forked Deer,” and “Red Bird”.
Byrd prefaces some of these tunes with a brief story or anecdote: how he idolized West Virginia fiddle legend Clark Kessinger growing up, how he learned “Cumberland Gap” from boarders his mother took in, and learning “Old Joe Clark” from a left-handed fiddler at a molasses-making in the ’20s. Byrd proves to be quite accomplished as a fiddler (great accompaniment never hurts) and also displays a good, if undeveloped, full-throated Appalachian singing voice.
Some of my favorite tracks here include an out-of-left-field version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Come Sundown” which fits surprisingly well alongside classic Appalachian folk material, the humorous good-time bluegrass romp “Wish I Has Stayed in the Wagon Yard,” a stunning version of “Roving Gambler,” and the album closer “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. Of course, it’s my favorite song of all time so a new version is always welcome.
This album is well worth checking out. Byrd displays promise as both a fiddler and a vocalist, but more important than that is his obvious passion for the music of his region of the country. However, one question still remains: would a 60-year-old fiddler have been able to record his debut album at the height of the disco era had he not been one of the most powerful men in the country? Probably not. But could Robert Byrd have had a career as a professional musician, perhaps as a fiddler in a bluegrass group? The answer to that is a resounding yes.