Lonesome Onry and Mean: The Shadowy Depression-Era Roots of Modern Country and Bluegrass

As LOM promised in last week's blog about bluegrass, here are some precursors to that art form. These are some wonderful tunes to listen to on your boom-box or iPod while tending your illegal still.

Charlie Poole: Charlie Poole is the iconic model for every hard-drinkin', guitar-plunking, Appalachian ne'er-do-well musician. Legend has it that he bought his first banjo with profits from his moonshine still. He and his brother-in-law formed the North Carolina Ramblers and soon enough went to NYC to audition for Columbia Records. Their first sessions resulted in the hit "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," credited by many as the first country-music hit.

"Deal" had sales of 102,000 copies - almost entirely in the South, which at that time only had around 600,000 record players! In many ways, Poole and his Ramblers invented the standard forms of both bluegrass and country music. Depressed by lagging record sales during the Great Depression, Poole went on a monumental bender and essentially drank himself to death in 1931.

Roscoe Holcomb: LOM has looked at every video on this guy we can find, and we don't think we've seen him smile once. Intense is the word that leaps to mind, even though he is already late-middle-aged to ancient in most of the photos and videos LOM has seen. One of the forerunners of what became the "high lonesome" sound of the Appalachian hills, here is Holcomb doing "John Hardy," which was also a regular song in the repertoires of rural bluesmen like Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and was resurrected by Uncle Tupelo on 1990's No Depression.

Dock Boggs: If you ever wondered where the "blue" in bluegrass comes from, listen to this and understand. While there may have been segregation at cafes and movie theaters, it's obvious there was little segregation in the vocal stylings of country poor folks, white or black. Noting the differences between bluegrass vocalists like Holcombe and Boggs vs. Leadbelly and Son House would take a trained dialect expert.


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