Highballers and Hoss Hair Pullers 

A Brit goes in search of the secret history of hillbilly music

Roots music, old-time music—whatever you call it, the current craze for primal country has resurrected the work of artists from Bascom Lamar Lunsford to Bob Wills. It was inevitable that somebody would turn out an encyclopedia of obscure hillbilly musicians for the growing number of Americana enthusiasts.

Roots music, old-time music — whatever you call it, the current craze for primal country has resurrected the work of artists from Bascom Lamar Lunsford to Bob Wills. It was inevitable that somebody would turn out an encyclopedia of obscure hillbilly musicians for the growing number of Americana enthusiasts. Fortunately, that somebody is Tony Russell, a gifted writer whose broad knowledge and lively prose make Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost (Oxford University Press, 280 pp., $29.95) indispensable to roots music geeks, as well as an entertaining read for casual country fans.

“You might almost call it a secret history,” Russell writes of the forgotten musicians and singers who carved the mold for a musical genre—acts like the South Georgia Highballers, whose saw player produced “a sweet, otherworldly humming that anticipates the oscillating electronic sounds of the theremin,” or Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers, who married “a sparkling cascade of fiddle and mandolin” with singing of “stiff-collared severity.” True to the title, Russell does include some legends, such as Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones and Ernest Tubb, but he focuses on their early careers, portraying them as the bridge artists between old-time music and post-World War II commercial country.

Russell has been chronicling American roots music for decades, and it’s hard to imagine a writer more perfectly equipped to take on a project such as Country Music Originals. His research is exhaustive, and each artist’s entry includes a list of currently available recordings, which alone would make the book useful to serious fans. His in-depth knowledge enables him to weave together the connections between artists to create a sense of the continuum of musical history.

What really sets Country Music Originals above the typical pop culture guide, however, is Russell’s buoyant writing. He’s based in London, so his frame of reference is sometimes refreshingly unexpected, as when he calls singer/fiddler Blind Alfred Reed “the Kingsley Amis of hillbilly music.” Russell’s way with a phrase makes it fun just to open the book at random to see what pops up: One band’s recordings have “an odd, lumbering grace, like elephants dancing,” while a joint performance of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family is “like a quartet made up of a fox and three chickens.” Fun stuff—sure to please old-time music fanatics, and possibly create a few more.

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