Odell Roy "Speedy" Tolliver waited more than half a century for the chance to record an album.
"Now & Then," the first CD by the Arlington octogenarian fiddle legend, is an unusual production recorded this year in a small but professional-quality studio operated by the county's Cultural Affairs Division.
This is the agency's first CD project, and to celebrate, it is hosting a release party and jam session this weekend featuring Tolliver and other area musicians. As if such an event weren't enough to warm the heart of any bluegrass fan, a restaurant will cater the show with down-home-style chili.
As related in the CD's liner notes, Tolliver grew up amid a familial food-and-fun vibe in the Washington County hamlet of Green Cove. A nearby town, Bristol, was home to the Victor Talking Machine Co., where music by the likes of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers was being recorded.
Tolliver, who first played banjo, was a regular at the small-town social events where musicians gathered informally to exchange tunes from the region's rich musical legacy.
Tolliver won top honors at the White Top Folk Festival in the 1930s and moved to the D.C. area in 1939, a time many consider a golden age of old-time country music. As a member of the Lee Highway Boys, Tolliver filled in for an unreliable fiddler and, though he continued to play a variety of instruments in a succession of bands, he became associated with the fiddle.
Tolliver performed with Eddie Stoneman of the Stoneman Family and Hoss and Roy Clark, played sessions with such stars as Chubby Wise and Grandpa Jones, and he became a regular on "Rural Roundup," a weekly show on WGAY. A recurring gig as a member of the Sammy Ferro big band showcased Tolliver's versatility in performances at Glen Echo Park's Spanish Ballroom.
In 1950, Tolliver put his musical career on hold to take a "real" job and raise a family, though he sometimes performed on a casual basis with work friends in a Dixieland band. He returned to playing country music in the late 1960s.
So how did Tolliver's recording debut, at age 87, come about?
The seeds were sown when the Arlington cultural affairs staff moved into the former WETA radio studios and saw the potential of the soundproofed rooms for making studio recordings. In 2004, sound technician Vander Lockett brought in the technology that would make such recordings possible, and Mary Briggs, head of the cultural affairs development unit and an accomplished musician and fan of Tolliver's, suggested bringing him in for a studio trial. Tolliver led two sessions, in January and February, with Bob Webster on bass and Briggs on guitar, and eight tracks were mastered at Cue Studios in Falls Church.
As the title "Now & Then" suggests, the material covers a span of time. In addition to this year's sessions, the CD features three live cuts from the 2003 Virginia Roots Music festival in Richmond and three cuts that literally crackle with vintage charm -- they were digitally remastered from home recordings Tolliver made in the 1940s on acetate disk. Old school, indeed.
-- MARIANNE MEYER
The Ellipse Arts Center is at 4350 N. Fairfax Dr. in Arlington, one block from the Ballston Metro station. Free underground parking is available. The event is free, but because space is limited, reservations are required. For reservations, call 703-228-1850 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Send Live! suggestions to email@example.com. Please write for the correct mailing address before sending any other materials.