Rediscovering the Roots of Bluegrass: Historically Significant Recordings from the Great Smoky Mountains Released

Posted by | August 15, 2014

Ted Olson, an East Tennessee State University faculty member in the Department of Appalachian studies, has spent many hours searching the university’s Archives of Appalachia for musical gems. After a year, he made quite a find.

According to Olson, the recordings he discovered, made in Haywood County, NC, by folklorist and linguist Joseph S. Hall in the 1950s, represent “the missing link between old-time string music and bluegrass, two music genres . . . whose connections are not widely understood.”These historically significant recordings, featuring music performances by the late five-string banjo master Carroll Best and some of his friends, document that Best was a pioneer of the melodic, three-finger banjo style.


Used today by numerous banjo players, including Bill Keith, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, the melodic style allows the banjo player to play more melody notes than the more widely known “Scruggs-style” bluegrass banjo. A new CD, “Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band: Old-Time Bluegrass from the Great Smoky Mountains, 1956 and 1959,” is a collection of informal jam sessions that occurred during Hall’s postwar forays into the Smokies.

In 1956, Hall recorded such local musicians as Best, destined to become one of the most significant banjo players of his generation, along with his wife, Louise Best, S.T. Swanger and Don Brooks, while in 1959, he recorded Best, Raymond Setzer, Billy Kirkpatrick and French Kirkpatrick.

Hall tagged both of these ensembles The White Oak String Band. Released by the non-profit Great Smoky Mountains Association, the CD contains a 64-page booklet written by Olson, and includes 37 songs. Among them are old favorites “Tennessee Wagoner,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Soldier’s Joy,” and newer material like “Banjo Boogie” and “Smoky Mountain Melody.” Proceeds from sales of the CD will be donated to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Grammy Award winner David Holt said of this new CD: “Carroll Best’s banjo playing was unparalleled. Inspired by Earl Scruggs and Don Reno but also learning from the old-time banjo and fiddle techniques of various family and community members, Best developed his own beautiful melodic three-finger banjo style.

The emergence of that unique and pioneering style can be heard in these rare recordings from the 1950s.”The sound engineer for “Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band” was John Fleenor. In 2013, Olson and Fleenor earned a Grammy nomination in the “Best Historical Album” category for their work on “Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music,” a release of music recordings collected by Joseph S. Hall in 1939 before residents of the Smokies were relocated to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Olson also received two Grammy nominations in 2012 for his work on a box set entitled “The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928: The Big Bang of Country Music.”To reintroduce the music on the new Carroll Best CD to Best’s home community, GSMA will host a CD launch event Friday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. in Stuart Auditorium at Lake Janaluska in Haywood County, N.C. Expected to be in attendance at this free event are French Kirkpatrick, Raymond Setzer, Best’s widow Louise, and several local and regional musicians inspired by Best. At least five different music acts will perform regional music that evening.

For details about the CD, visit the GSMA website.

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