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GUEST,Josepp Review: You Ain't Talkin' To Me - Charlie Poole (12) Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers 29 Jun 12


I just bought a Charlie Poole anthology "You Ain't Talkin' to Me". When they call it a boxed set, they ain't kiddin'. This set is a thing of beauty. It comes in a cardboard box that looks like wood--like a cigar box, sort of. On the lid is an R. Crumb portrait of Charlie. The lid is even sealed with a strip that says "Charlie C. Poole - Outlaw Country since 1925."

The bottom of the box has a listing of the songs and artists on the 3 discs in the set. They're not all Charlie Poole songs. Many of them are actually pieces by other artists and the following track is Charlie's version of that song. Charlie was a big fan of banjoist Fred Van Eps and of ragtime singer Arthur Collins and their songs among others appear in this set which is so fucking cool I can't even believe it.

When you flip up the lid, there is a portrait of an Appalachian scene and a beautiful booklet with extensive notes and lots of cool photos.   Under the booklet are the three discs each in its own sleeve and each sleeve has its own cover illustation. The CDs are black and silk-screened to look like the old Columbia Graphophone label which I recognize because I have a lot of old Columbia Graphophone records in my collection--mostly Wilbur Sweatman stuff which I love and adore.

For those who don't know, Charlie Poole (1892-1931) was one of the founders of country music. He preceded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers by 2 or 3 years. But he was not quite as early as Eck Robertson whom I believe started recording in 1921. Charlie started in 1925. He teamed up with fiddler Posey Rorer and guitarist Roy Harvey in the cotton-milling town of Spray, North Carolina. He couldn't take working in the mills for long and would get out on the road with his banjo and disappear for weeks at a time playing anywhere he could get a gig. Then he'd return home and go back to the mill for a spell.

Charlie's banjo-playing was unique. There was no one else quite like him. With his bandmates, Poole provided a 3-finger rat-a-tat beat that Harvey's guitar danced around on its bass strings while Posey layered extremely fine fiddle-playing over top of. It was executed with a skill and precision found only in the finest chamber and string ensembles. When the band went to New York and auditioned at Columbia with their version of "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" they were signed on the spot. The record went on to sell over 100,000 copies which was unheard of in those days.

The Charlie and band--known as the North Carolina Ramblers--became extremely popular in the 20s. They earned money but not really what they were owed but enough that Charlie could buy himself the finest Gibson banjo on the market. When posing for photos, the band was always dressed in fine suits and ties and never in cover-alls or whatever rural folk wore or were thought to wear by city folk. But when Charlie drank up the Posey's share of the money, the ensuing falling out destroyed both their musical partnership and friendship. They never spoke again.

Charlie was a terrible drinker and couldn't lay off the stuff. Not surprisingly, he was a total hellraiser. He once assaulted a police officer who had placed him under arrest by smacking him upside the head with his banjo. I hafted a banjo in my hands a few hours ago to judge how that must have felt and I can safely say it must have goddamn well hurt. Charlie's drinking was so bad that even his neighbors back in Spray often hated him. They loved his music but they hated him. He could be a good, clean, sober guy sometimes and he could be a very bad, shit-faced drunken guy lots of other times. As the anthology points out, he was the original country outlaw.

When Charlie fell on hard times during the Depression, his label dropped him and Charlie returned to Spray. Just when he couldn't get any lower, Hollywood came a-knockin'. They wanted to film some music shorts and thought Charlie Poole would be good for business. They sent Charlie a plane ticket to come out to Hollywood. Elated, Charlie went on a bender. At some point, he was found lying in a road by some men who took him to his sister's home where he died on the porch. He was all of 39.

When Posey got word of Charlie's death, he said, "It's a shame a man like that would drink himself to death," and then Posey promptly died five years later of acute alcoholism.

When I listen to the Ramblers, I think I see where Maybelle Carter came up with the Carter lick. It sounded like she was taking Roy Harvey's bass lines and combining them with Charlie's chords on one instrument to imitate the North Carolina Ramblers. I'm just guessing though.

Charlie's career lasted a full six years but in that time he changed the course of roots music. So if you have any interest in roots music at all, get you this anthology and start diggin' it, baby!


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