By Bill Friskics-Warren
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
In August 1927, Ralph Peer, a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Co. in New York, traveled to Bristol, Tenn., where he set up a makeshift studio in a warehouse and presided over the first recorded performances of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Long viewed as the birth of commercial country music, Peer's fabled Bristol Sessions are also commonly referred to by historians as country's "Big Bang."
What this account neglects to tell us, though, is that more than a few "hillbilly" singers were already enjoying prolific recording careers a good three to four years before Peer ventured to the hollers of east Tennessee. Among the most colorful was a singer and banjo player from North Carolina named Charlie Poole, whose debut single, "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues," was a runaway hit for Columbia Records in 1925.
Poole also led one of the era's most popular traveling string bands. But whether because of his premature death, from alcohol poisoning in 1931, or because his story doesn't fit country music's prevailing myth of origin, today he is largely forgotten, a figure familiar mainly to folklorists and fans of old-time music.
Loudon Wainwright III's "High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project" might just remedy this situation. A lovingly assembled two-disc set of new versions of Poole's songs and others based on his life, the album, released Tuesday, isn't meant as a rebuttal to the now official account of country's origins. It's simply a splendid attempt, on the part of Wainwright, producer Dick Connette and a cast of collaborators that include Wainwright's children and mandolin whiz Chris Thile, to renew interest in Poole's music -- and, with any luck, gain him the recognition they believe he's due.
"One of our hopes, aside from that Dick will make back some of his money, is that people will get turned on to Charlie Poole," said Wainwright, who was introduced to the singer's music by singer-songwriter Patrick Sky in the early 1970s. Wainwright was speaking from the greenroom of the Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, where he and collaborators David Mansfield and Chaim Tannenbaum performed a lively set of material from "High Wide & Handsome" in early August.
"That," Wainwright said, "and we hope the record will be one small step in the direction for Charlie Poole to get into the [Country Music] Hall of Fame."
A case certainly can be made for Poole's inclusion into that elite circle, and not just on the basis of his enormous popularity when he and his band, the North Carolina Ramblers, were barnstorming the southeastern United States during the late 1920s. From "Sweet Sunny South" to "Took My Gal A-Walkin'," many of their songs went on to become folk, country and bluegrass standards. "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms," "If I Lose, I Don't Care" and "Deal," among others, were later recorded by the likes of Flatt and Scruggs, the Band and the Grateful Dead.
Poole, who hailed from the tiny mill town of Spray, N.C., didn't write any of these songs. He did, however, make them his own -- or "Poolerized them," to use Connette's more vivid turn of phrase.
"He had a very strong personality, and it came through in everything he did," the producer said. "He put life in the songs he sang, and that's why they've stayed around so long. There's nothing deathless about lines like, 'Flossie, Flossie, what's the matter?/Just walked back from old Cincinnater.' But when Charlie sings it, you say, 'Wait a minute, I want to be a part of that.' "
The above lines, from "If I Lose," are vintage Poole, who amply led the rambling, gambling, boozing life he sang about. According to one well-circulated yarn, he once told his wife, Lou Emma, that he was going out for cigarettes -- and returned home seven weeks later. In "Little Waterloo," the song Connette wrote about the incident, he changed the length of time Poole was gone to seven months to underscore the outsize proportions of his profligate lifestyle. In "The Man in the Moon," singing from the perspective of the long-suffering Lou Emma, Wainwright laments, "It was hard bein' married to Charlie/It was no kind of regular life."
"You know that expression, 'Well, he's a real character'?" asked Wainwright -- who, from the darkly comic persona he inhabits in his own songs, certainly knows what he's talking about. "Well, if you get a real character it's a powerful thing, because it's an exaggeration of life. And with the help of things like alcohol, Charlie Poole was larger than life."
Renowned for his zany antics onstage, he would go to such extremes as turning somersaults and walking on his hands to work his audience into a lather. He also told corny jokes and stories full of richly imagined characters. "He was like a one-man 'Hee-Haw,' '' Connette said, placing Poole in the tradition of the traveling minstrel and medicine show entertainers of his day.
He also sold a lot of records, including 102,000 copies of "Deal" -- more than 10 times that of the average title issued in Columbia Records' "Old Familiar Tunes" series, in which it was included.
"He enjoyed some glory," Wainwright said. "There are stories in Kinney Rorrer's biography ["Rambling Blues: The Life and Songs of Charlie Poole"] of him showing up at home one night with a pillowcase full of cash. He must have had some good times and some good years and made some good money, certainly more than he could ever have made as a millworker."
The downside of this extravagant lifestyle, of course, was Poole's prodigious thirst for alcohol, a weakness he openly sang about in songs like "If the River Was Whiskey," "Take a Drink on Me" and "Goodbye Booze." Drinking is what eventually killed him, at age 39, after he went on a 13-week bender to celebrate the invitation -- and cash advance -- he received to supply music for a Hollywood movie.
Connette thinks that it was precisely Poole's foibles that made him so popular and that, in addition to his rich musical legacy, make him such a strong candidate for the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"The Carter Family put the words, 'This program will be good for you,' on their posters," he said. "The reason that so many people connected with Charlie Poole was that he wasn't just one thing. And this is what we see in the music, that he's a wise guy but he's also sentimental. He would sing 'Take a Drink on Me' and then turn around and do a gospel thing. . . . There was something very real about him, and people could relate to that."