Growing up, I learned a capella “parts singing” by chiming in with the church congregation. We visited some of the churches on neighboring Sand Mountain, where I first got to hear fa-so-la singing — from the shape note tradition which was just about the prettiest, eeriest, and moving vocal harmonies I’d ever heard. The Louvins grew up there. I once told Charlie Louvin that our family attended services in several Henager, and Ider, Alabama area churches and that we knew a lot of his kinfolk. He replied, “Well, you know where we got our music from.”
Dad and Mom took me to see Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys when I was twelve. We sat within a few feet of the stage and proceeded to enjoy musical steak that night. I experienced what I’ve read that a young Levon Helm experienced twenty years earlier when he saw the Blue Grass Boys in his hometown of Marvel, Arkansas. Levon went home wanting to be a musician and so did I.
It’s amazing to think how many people’s interest in music grew from the seeds Bill Monroe sewed. The best of them combined the essence of Bill’s music with their own influences to create music with a new face, much as Monroe did years earlier. So I left my first Bill Monroe show wanting to do what Bill did, and to make people feel the way that Bill’s music made me feel. Later on, the challenge for the band came in learning to sing and play Monroe’s music proficiently, which was an exciting, but daunting, task.
After four or five years of touring coast-to-coast, and of watching those remaining first generation masters “live and up-close” at some major festivals and hallowed halls, we signed with Rounder Records in 1989. I remember Ken Irwin, the A&R man for Rounder, calling and asking if I could get the whole band over to my mom and dad’s house for a jam. He and Hazel Dickens were at a festival in Louisiana and wanted to stop by on their way to DC. Well, we played some music, talked over dinner together and had agreed on the gist of a contract by the time they left that night…essential validation for a young band trying to make it in such a competitive business.
I believe that Bill Monroe genuinely appreciated artists who tried their best to play his music as close to the Monroe Doctrine as possible. But he would be the first to say that you’ve got to make the music your own. After starting our relationship with the Rounder Family, one of the first pieces of advice that Ken gave us was, “You have a great Bill Monroe thing going; now you should work at creating your own identity.” That was hard to understand at that time in our musical development — kind of a curve ball to the youngsters who prided themselves at playing Bill’s style so faithfully. Over time we came to learn that creating your own sound is the most rewarding part of being a musician.
The best tribute that we could offer Poole’s legacy and the public was to try to take Poole’s music and evolve it into a more modern form of traditional music. Bill chose elements from several earlier styles of music and mixed them together into a new life force. We figured that if our band was going to evolve its sound into something we could call our own, we should go back a generation before the Blue Grass Boys and absorb the sounds of whatever the Monroe family listened to.
This project contains the most extensive variety of traditional roots styles we’ve ever recorded. Selecting fifteen songs from Charlie Poole’s eighty recorded song repertoire was not easy. But we got once into it, the Tin Pan Alley, blues, Old Time and popular early twentieth-century music influences that morphed into Poole’s style flowed just as easily into our own.
The best tribute that we could offer Poole’s legacy and the public was to try to take the key traits of Poole’s music and evolve them into more modern forms of traditional music. Poole is greatly influential to a much broader roots music family than bluegrass. Evidence of this came this year when Bob Dylan cited Poole in his Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech.
Collectively, the depth and breadth of the band members make the Warrior River Boys a bandleader’s dream. Banjo player Robert Montgomery, a ten-year band member and fellow Alabamian with a deep knowledge of Poole’s music, helped greatly in co-producing the album. His multi-tasking banjo and Travis-style guitar and high baritone vocals on “Old and In The Way,” as well as his lead vocals on “Sweet Sunny South” and “Where the Whippoorwill Is Whispering Goodnight” complemented the arrangements beautifully.
Having sung together for the last twenty-three years, Marty Hays is as likely familiar with my vocal moves and inflections as I am. We blend like brothers. He handled the lead vocals on most of the duets and tenor vocals on one song and played an inspired bass fiddle throughout the album.
A gifted songwriter, Stan Wilemon has contributed some of our most enduring original songs and continues to write new ones. His masterful guitar playing, spiced with exciting, but tasteful runs, lays a foundation for the band’s own musical identity.
Billy Hurt of Virginia guested on fiddle as we were “in between” fiddlers at the time of this recording Billy Hurt of Virginia guested on fiddle as we were in between fiddlers at the time of this recording. I feel that Billy is as knowledgeable as any fiddler in the business as to how the fiddle worked in Charlie Poole’s music.
As Bill Monroe said, “You have to know how far you want to go with it and where to stop.” He accomplished this monumental task and his fans were rewarded greatly by the effort. Now the evolutionary task has come for a new generation of artists to accept the challenge Bill gave us.
The future is in the roots. By going back in time, we move forward, growing those roots into a magical potion of ingredients old and new.
Right, Right On!
David Davis (September, 2017, Cullman, Alabama)