Johnson City Sessions Roundup

Mountain Music
By John Lilly
he Golden Era of old-time
country music, the late 1920’s
through the 1930’s, was punctuated by some illustrious remote
recording sessions sponsored by
major commercial record labels
and run by legendary producers.
Ralph Peer and the 1927 and 1928
Bristol Sessions loom large, due
primarily to the discoveries of
singing stars Jimmie Rodgers and
the original Carter Family for the
Victor label. [See “Mountain Music
Roundup,” by John Lilly; Winter
But there were others. Ralph
Peer went to Asheville, North
Carolina, in 1925. OKeh Records
conducted field recordings in
Winston-Salem, North Carolina,
in September 1927. The Brunswick label did likewise
in Ashland, Kentucky,
and Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1928, ’29, and ’30.
Among the most significant and eclectic of these
expeditions, however,
were two that took place
in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1928 and 1929 for
Columbia Records with
producer Frank Walker.
The Johnson City
Sessions 1928-1929:
“Can You Sing or Play
Old-Time Music?” is
a new boxed set from
Bear Family Records
that documents these
Johnson City Sessions in
grand style. Featuring
100 tracks on four CDs
and a 135-page book, the
collection is detailed,
Winter 2014
well-designed, and substantial.
Produced by Ted Olson and Tony
Russell, this attractive package
includes informative notes, biographies of all of the musicians,
lyrics to all of the songs, discography, chronology, bibliography, and
vintage photographs along with
digitally remastered tracks from
37 recording artists from across
the Appalachian region.
West Virginia is very well represented. While at the earlier Bristol
Sessions only two West Virginia
acts participated (fiddler/singer
Blind Alfred Reed and the West
Virginia Coon Hunters string
band), there were six at Johnson
City. They included singer Richard
Harold, guitar duo Roy Harvey
and Leonard Copeland, vocal and
yodeling duo Earl Shirkey and
Roy Harper, guitar/mandolin duo
Robert Hoke and Vernal Vest, and
string bands the Weaver Brothers
and the Moatsville String Ticklers.
All but one of these came from
the Beckley area; the Moatsville
group hailed from Barbour County. Eighteen of the 28 tunes or
songs they cumulatively recorded
included the talented, ubiquitous
Roy Harvey — Roy recorded as
both Harvey and Harper, and as a
member of the Weaver Brothers.
Richard Harold, the first of these
to record, was a blind street singer
from the Princeton area, who was
often associated with Blind Alfred
Reed. [See “The Blind Man’s Song:
Recalling Alfred Reed,” by John
Lilly; Winter 2008.] On one song,
“Sweet Bird,” an uncredited fiddler is presumed
by Olson and Russell to
be Mercer County fiddler Fred Pendleton —
to my ear it could just as
likely have been Alfred
Reed, though Pendleton
is an equally strong possibility.
Roy Harvey recorded
more than 200 songs in
a five-year period for a
variety of labels and in
any number of bands.
[See “’Daddy Loved
Music’: Recalling Guitarist Roy Harvey,” by
Matt Meacham; Winter
2007.] In Johnson City
he recorded with guitarist Leonard Copeland,
yodeler Earl Shirley,
and the Weaver Brothers
The Moatsville String Ticklers. From the left are Floyd Frye, Zel Frye, Doyle Shaffer, Harold Ritter, Brooks Ritter, Gordon Frye, Marshall Summers,
and Cecil Frye. Photographer and date unknown.
band. The four guitar instrumentals with Leonard Copeland were
spirited and precise — “Beckley
Rag” is a highlight. Using the thinly veiled pseudonym Roy Harper,
Harvey recorded 10 songs with
yodeler Earl Shirkey — far more
than any other artist. Yodeling
was all the rage at the time, and
Shirkey possessed the skill and
the tonality to yodel full choruses
between Harvey’s verses. Their
collaboration resulted in the runaway bestseller of the two Johnson
City Sessions — “When the Roses
Bloom for the Bootlegger,” a 1928
parody of a popular sentimental
song that sold an amazing 72,545
copies, eclipsing the next bestseller fourfold. Invited back in
1929, the pair cut six more songs,
including another parody, this
time a swipe at West Virginia’s be-
loved anthem, “The West Virginia
Hills” — a comic takeoff called
“We Have Moonshine in the West
Virginia Hills.”
A straight-ahead reading of “The
West Virginia Hills” was recorded
later the same day by the Moatsville String Ticklers — one of the
highlights of the collection for
any West Virginian and among
the most satisfying recordings of
that song ever made. The flip side,
“Moatsville Blues,” is also well
worth a listen. Two other titles recorded that day went unreleased.
The Moatsville String Ticklers
were guitarists Floyd Frye, Doyle
Shaffer, and Marshall Summers;
banjo players Brooks Ritter and
Zel Frye; fiddlers Cecil Frye, Gordon Frye, and Harold Ritter; and
an unnamed vocal chorus.
Roy Harvey joined Vance and
Wiley Weaver and fiddler Odell
Smith to record two numbers
each as the Weaver Brothers and
the Weaver Brothers String Band.
Only two of their four songs were
Neither of the two songs recorded by Robert Hoke and Vernal
Vest was released. None of the
unreleased titles is included in this
collection, unfortunately; they are
presumed to be lost.
For fans of early country music, especially those interested in
early country music from West
Virginia, The Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929: “Can You Sing or
Play Old-Time Music?” is a trove
of little-known and seldom-heard
recordings. The boxed set is available through County Sales; phone
(540)745-2001 or online at www