GASTONIA GALLOP: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues
Piedmont Textile Workers On Record
Gaston County, North Carolina 1927–1931
Old Hat CD-1007
Reviewed by Jay Hinman / High Water Everywhere / January 11, 2010
I've been a big fan of the achival releases from Old Hat Records ever since their first few from about a decade ago, including the amazing “Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow” and “Music From The Lost Provinces.” These guys do the Carolinas like nobody's business, especially the poor, hard-working Appalachian/Western North Carolina of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Everything they've put out is nothing short of outstanding, and it was high time I got on board with their 2009 release, “Gastonia Gallop.” which is subtitled “Cotton Mill Songs and Hillbilly Blues - Piedmont Textile Workers on Record, Gaston County, North Carolina 1927-1931.” It's a fun, often revelatory collection from a handful of artists, and collects 78 rpm sides from actual folks who worked in the cotton mills of the Piedmont region during this era, and who were semi-professional musicians in their exceedingly rare spare time.
“Gastonia Gallop” heavies up on early rural, bluegrass-tinged acts who used harmonica, banjo and guitar as their method for blowing off steam. There are a number of standouts to go with a generally medium-to-high level of quality, most notably anything featuring Wilmer Watts. Wilmer Watts & The Lonely Eagles get six sides here, comprising three different 78s, and they're all excellent hoedowns & ballads with Watts' rough-edged, untrained and barked voice, a voice that totally grabs you around the lapels and sucks you in no matter how intense he's shouting or “crooning.” "She's A Hard-Boiled Rose" and "Been On The Job Too Long" are my top tracks in this collection, and now I understand why I've been seeing this guy mentioned in R. Crumb comics and various record-collector rantings all these years. If I've ever heard his stuff before it somehow didn't make a dent, but now I'll be on the lookout for any & all Watts material.
David McCarn is sort of the linchpin of this 24-song set, appearing by himself & in duos throughout the set, as well as being featuring extensively throughout the liner notes (he basically drank himself to death - ouch). There are multiple versions (more like continuations) of his over-the-top working man's rant "Cotton Mill Colic," which the notes seem to indicate may have been less a true lament of working conditions and more a way to sell some vinyl to the truly P.O.ed working stiffs around him. I find his harmonica a little annoying - any time harmonica has that trilling, upper-register screech that pops up throughout this CD I want to turn down the volume immediately - but he was a crackerjack songwriter and "Everyday Dirt" is one of the best tunes on here.
There's also a simple, tremendous instrumental on the set called "Red Rose Rag" by Fletcher & Foster that's really just a basic Irish jig gone deep South, but I swear I just keep skipping forward on the disc so I can hear this guitar/harp duet again (track #12, so right down the middle). Everything else is "good enough," except when that d-tuned harmonica gets in the way. Apparently this set's full of organizing tunes that helped the cause of Labor back in the day, and though a bunch of the tunes are obviously novelties designed to get the working man laughing or offer some clownish succor for a hard day's work, there's also a sense of unforced, non self-aware history-making from these rural inventors of early country music. It's a really solid set of tunes and another fantastic release from Old Hat, who've taken the crown from Revenant and Yazoo for best (and most consistent) archival roots music label circa 2009/2010.