Every so often, a recording comes along that takes the listener completely by surprise, inspiring repeated listening and an eagerness to fully appreciate the character, nuance, and power contained within. Such was the case a few weeks ago when I dusted off an old vinyl LP I had recently acquired from our collection and first heard County Records' original recording of the Russell Family from Carroll County, Virginia.
Featuring an old time ensemble of mountain dulcimer, guitar, and baritone ukulele performing localized renditions of standard regional dance tunes, this recording represents a departure from my usual diet of fiddle and banjo-led string bands and song-oriented bluegrass groups. I approached this album with a healthy sense of curiosity that was in part inspired by the black and white cover photo picturing the family sitting with their instruments next to an old shed in a scene that could have been set in 1872 rather than 1972, when this album was originally released as County Records 734. Considering that many of the recordings of heritage music traditions issued after the Folk Revival of 1960s featured older-generation musicians keeping old traditions alive, the relative ages of the pictured family members also piqued my curiosity as the image of the family on the album cover features one seasoned adult and two children, with the lead instrument in the hands of the youngest and smallest member. I'll also admit that I had some initial trepidation regarding the inclusion of the baritone ukulele - an instrument that is not common to string band music of Southwest Virginia.
Any doubts that I may have had regarding the instrumentation or ages of the musicians were put to rest as the opening notes of a driving rendition of "Ebenezer" sounded through my speakers. The more I listened, the more impressed and infatuated I became. The music is powerful, nuanced, dance music that defies both the simple instrumentation and low average age of the performers. Although the tunes are more or less standard regional melodies, each one is made distinctive and delivered with a consistency and sureness of style that only comes from a lifestyle centered around this kind of communal music making.
The maturity and precision in Bonnie Russell's dulcimer playing is astounding, and all the more so considering she was only 13 at the time this recording was made! In addition to melody, the dulcimer provides all of the drive, drones, and underlying rhythmic consistency required in dance music of the region - the musical roles typically filled by strong fiddle and banjo players. Roy Russell, only 15 himself at the time, provides rock solid rhythmic backing on the guitar including impressive runs that provide a strong counterpoint to Bonnie's lead playing. The patriarch of the family, Roscoe Russell contributes tastefully syncopated rolling lines from the baritone ukulele that he picks in 3-finger style, echoing the Scruggs-influenced banjo style that had become popular in the region around Galax by that time.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Russell Family is how well the three members, remarkable as each may be individually, work together to create a sound that is even greater than the sum of its parts. The ensemble playing is truly masterful. Simple arrangements on some numbers allow for instruments to drop out or enter in a staggered fashion, effectively featuring various combinations within the trio sound. Every musical decision seems to compliment and serve the greater good.
I just can't get enough of this album, which was reissued by County Records in CD format featuring two previously unreleased tracks. From the melodies, to the rhythms, to the wonderful ensemble playing, this is music that is worth listeners' full and undivided attention. The music of the Russell Family is something that all fans and connoisseurs of traditional music should appreciate. The fact that I've been working at County Sales for over two years now and have arranged this album on the shelf many times with no clue as to the magic contained within is a testament to how much great music is hidden on these shelves, still to be rediscovered.
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