Hobart Smith – Ballad Legacy / Blue Ridge Legacy

Hobart Smith
Ballad Legacy / Blue Ridge Legacy

There aren’t many labels that have done as much to preserve and encourage American roots music as Rounder Records. Aside from nurturing the careers of bluegrass and country acts, including Allison Krauss and James King, they are also pressing and distributing CDs gleaned from the field recordings of the most illustrious American folk music cataloger, Alan Lomax. His mid-19th century field recordings of artists from the backwoods and swamps of the American South helped revolutionize the sound of mainstream folk, rock, and blues. He trekked the South recording volumes of music in spare, one-shot takes in the places where his musician acquaintances felt most comfortable: on a front porch or family room in Appalachia, a gas station in rural Piedmont, or in front of a corrugated shanty on the Delta.
Hobart Smith and Texas Gladden were musically gifted siblings from the isolated Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. The exhaustive notes, which will take to read the better part of the total time it takes to listen to each of these CDs, detail their lives, genealogy, musical ancestry and legacy, and relationships with each other and with Alan Lomax in detail. For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention that when these recordings were made, both were already passed middle-aged, impoverished, rustic, rife with a laundry list of severe medical problems, and playing music that continuously missed attracting attention with the mainstream folk movement.
The songs that comprise Texas Gladden’s Ballad Legacy are, not surprisingly, ballads mixed with warm excerpts of interviews. Gladden’s voice is a piercing, shrill, mountain wail. But it’s also expressive, and that goes a long way since only a scattering of 37 different recordings on the disc are accompanied by any instruments, usually a guitar or banjo picked by her brother Hobart. She sings traditional songs passed down from generation to generation by descendents of the original Scotch-Irish settlers who came to the region in the 18th century. You can hear that age on these songs, many of which were sung in the British Isles centuries ago. This is forgotten music, dusty and almost painfully rusty. Taken strictly on its musical merits, only the most diehard a capella, folk fan would be able to get through this in one sitting. Its unforgiving length panders too much to the academic interests of obscure musicology to be easily digestible for even devoted Appalachian music lovers. It’s more suitable for background music, adding just the right homey color. I can picture this being played in a Shenandoah cider and bric-a-brac souvenir store, or a camping store, both packed with Range Rover-driving boomers scoping out their latest local vineyard-bottled Virginia wine, and Patagonia socks and fleece head bands.
Hobart Smith’s Blue Ridge Legacy is an imminently more listenable collection of songs. The basic organization of this CD is the same as Texas Gladden’s compilation. Of the 31 tracks, the majority are songs, some recorded in front of a rowdy audience. These songs are cut here and there with Smith’s introductions and interviews. Even though this CD is packaged as a catalog of Hobart Smith’s musical legacy as exhaustive as Texas Gladden’s, it doesn’t feel as obscurely dry and outdated as hers does. His fiddle playing, banjo, and guitar picking expertise is both timeless and, in light of the recent resurgence of bluegrass music, it even feels current, as if an old master has come down from the hills to show the upstarts what this rustic musical style is really supposed to sound like. He fills each song with green vitality, and when singing, his voice is a strong and rich valley loam. Surprisingly, this collection also includes Smith playing some powerfully convincing blues. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though, given his prodigious talents with several different musical instruments.
The efforts that Rounder Records is putting into these collections is admirable. And given the runaway success of last year’s Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, there’s a good chance that this series will experience modest commercial sales. For those who are interested in digging deeper into this rustic Southern music, this Alan Lomax collection would be a great start. However, beware of what you’re buying. Hobart Smth’s Blue Ridge Legacy is the more enjoyable listen, and its music and liner notes will both satisfy and answer many questions. And if you’re feeling brave, go for the Texas Gladden, but I’d move on to another artist in the series before I got to her.