The Man with the Recording Machine
This album features 37 music performances by The White Oak String Band, a community ensemble comprised of several amateur musicians—all relatives or close friends who (with one exception) lived just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Haywood County, North Carolina. All these performances were documented during three late-1950s recording sessions (two in 1956 and one in 1959) held in a house in Haywood County’s Upper White Oak community. What prompted these sessions were visits from Pasadena, California-based scholar Joseph Sargent Hall. During occasional trips to the Great Smoky Mountains from the 1950s through the 1970s, Hall sought to document area culture to add to the recordings of speech and other verbal folklore he had obtained in that Appalachian subregion in the late 1930s.
On July 21, 1956, Hall arrived at the Upper White Oak community and carried portable recording equipment into Teague Williams’ house. Hall was no stranger to this section of the North Carolina Smokies—he had likely met the Williams family and other members of that community in the late 1930s when he was working for the National Park Service to document the culture of people being forced from their rural homes and farms to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Setting up his equipment—a reel-to-reel tape recorder with a ribbon microphone—in the front room (the living room) of that house, Hall began recording some musicians that Williams had invited there for an impromptu music-making session. Hall was not in the music business; he had just one intention that day—to send any recordings he might make of Smokies-area music to the Library of Congress. The musicians performing for Hall that day did not particularly care they were being recorded for posterity, nor did they come to Williams’ house to receive compensation; they were there because they enjoyed playing music together, whatever the occasion.
The members of the group performing for Hall on July 21, 1956, included two musicians from Haywood County: Carroll Best, a 25-year-old who had a passion for playing old-time fiddle tunes on his banjo, often employing a distinctive three-finger banjo style in which he accentuated most or all the melodic notes of a tune; and S. T. Swanger, a 27-year-old who was an expressive old-time fiddler and a solid rhythm guitarist. A mysterious third musician was there that day—someone introduced by Williams simply as Joyce, who played rhythm guitar on two instrumental dance numbers; Hall did not note that guitarist’s last name, and no one today with connections to The White Oak String Band can recall the person’s exact identity. Best’s new wife Louise—they had been married a little over one month—was in attendance, and she sang a couple of songs. As he would do on the subsequent sessions for Hall, Williams acted as the unofficial master of ceremonies, and on July 21 he spontaneously called the musicians The White Oak String Band—a coinage he had created for the occasion.
Two weeks later, on August 5, 1956, Hall—after making additional recordings of other Smokies-area residents (mostly of spoken narratives rather than of music)—recorded another music session at Williams’ house. This time The White Oak String Band featured Best, Swanger, and Don Brooks, a 24-year-old musician equally skilled on rhythm guitar and steel guitar. Brooks had probably driven to Haywood County that day from his home in Asheville. Best, Swanger, and Brooks had befriended one another while serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Having made music during their time in the military, the three often got together to jam after returning to western North Carolina. Hall’s tapes from this 1956 session feature a guest lead vocalist on “More Pretty Girls Than One”—Teague Williams himself stepped to the microphone for this one song.
Hall’s field recordings of The White Oak String Band from 1956 are of historical significance in that they document what are in all likelihood the earliest performances by anyone, anywhere, of the style that later came to be known in bluegrass circles as melodic three-finger banjo, a style that Best helped pioneer but that has generally been credited to two better-known banjo players, Bobby Thompson and Bill Keith. Melodic three-finger banjo style is now associated with a number of talented contemporary banjo players, including Bela Fleck, Alan Munde, Tony Trischka, and Alison Brown. The participants in the two 1956 sessions at Williams’ house could not have imagined that those recordings would be released one day for all the world to hear—and they certainly could not have foreseen that those same recordings, upon being finally heard publicly nearly 60 years after being recorded, might challenge the standard narrative within bluegrass music circles regarding the origination of a major performance style associated with the banjo (a quintessentially American instrument that found some of its most innovative interpreters among the people of Appalachia—people like Carroll Best).
Joseph Hall must have been pleased with the outcome of those 1956 music-making sessions because he returned to the Upper White Oak community three years later. On July 22, 1959, during a subsequent folklore-collection trip in the Smokies, Hall brought his equipment back to Teague Williams’ house to make new recordings of local music. Again Williams served as emcee, and again he called the group of musicians who showed up that day The White Oak String Band. The only returning musician from the 1956 sessions was Carroll Best, now 28. Best was joined by 26-year-old Billy Kirkpatrick, a talented fiddler, and by Billy’s 20-year-old brother, rhythm guitarist French Kirkpatrick. The Kirkpatrick brothers both lived in the Upper White Oak community just over the hill from Williams’ house, though they were both known outside of Haywood County, having performed on radio and television in Asheville (Billy had also played around Europe while with the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s). Likewise participating in the recording sessions that day was Raymond Setzer, who made the short drive to Williams’ house from his home in the nearby community of Maggie Valley; Setzer stepped before the microphone to accompany the band on vocals for one song and on guitar for several tunes. Louise Best did not participate this time—she stayed home to take care of baby Alpha, who had been born to her and Carroll the previous year.
Best and the other musicians clearly enjoyed themselves that day in 1959, as the recordings captured some confident, inspired, yet laid-back performances. French Kirkpatrick fondly remembers that day, and he certainly recalls meeting Hall: “When Joe [Hall] came by, my brother Billy and I thought he was a big blowhard. When Joe said, ‘I’m going to put these [recordings] in the Library of Congress,’ we couldn’t believe it. He did exactly that, as it turned out.” French can still see Hall, “stoop-shouldered, losing his hair,” carrying bulky reel-to-reel recording equipment up the walkway to Williams’ house from the truck that Hall had driven there.
The Recordings Hall Left Us
Hall was at Williams’ house in 1956 and 1959 to document some music-making in the Great Smoky Mountains, and of course he had no way of knowing that he was documenting the early music of a banjo master. Not being a musician or music historian, he may not have been able to judge adequately the aesthetic qualities of what he was hearing. Indeed, Hall, from a scholarly perspective, may not have been overly excited by these recordings since the repertoire of The White Oak String Band consisted mostly of instrumental music—Hall, a linguist by training, was primarily interested in speech. For his part, Williams apparently thought—given his enthusiastic vocal interjections during fiddle breaks (as heard on the 1959 recordings)—that Billy Kirkpatrick was the “star” of the July 22, 1959, sessions. Regardless, fans of historically significant American music are indebted to Hall for caring so deeply about the people of the Smokies that he made these 1956 and 1959 recordings of The White Oak String Band, rendering it possible for us to hear Carroll Best’s innovative banjo playing in its formative phase.
In the late 1930s, as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, Hall had taken on (as part of his doctoral research) the task of documenting and studying the verbal culture of people being displaced from their homes during the formation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Even after moving to California in the 1940s to teach at Pasadena City College, Hall periodically visited friends in the vicinity of the park, and he continued to make field recordings of Smokies-area residents. Unlike many other documentarians active during the urban folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s, who sought to unearth music material for possible use in commercially released recordings, Hall yearned to record the speech and music of Smokies-area people for one purpose: to donate those recordings to the Library of Congress (eventually, Hall’s recordings were also given to two other archives: the Archives of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and East Tennessee State University’s Archives of Appalachia). Hall had no intention of releasing the recordings in any form, whether commercial or not-for-profit, during his lifetime, as he felt protective of the reputations of those he had documented over the years. But Hall’s estate directed the person designated to oversee the dissemination of Hall’s fieldwork—linguist Michael Montgomery—to render Hall’s various recordings available to the public in ways that might uphold the dignity of the people Hall had befriended years before. Accordingly, this album constitutes the first-ever release of the revelatory recordings made by Hall at Williams’ house.
Containing the “usable” recordings from Hall’s 1956 and 1959 sessions with The White Oak String Band, this album—Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band: Old-Time Bluegrass from the Great Smoky Mountains, 1956 and 1959—features 33 instrumental tunes, 3 songs, and a short piece featuring Williams’ introduction of the group. Several recordings from those sessions are not included herein because they are either of extremely poor audio quality today or because they constitute incomplete or redundant performances.
The title of this album is intended to honor the only musician heard on all of these recordings: legendary banjo-player Carroll Best (1931-1995), an innovator of the melodic three-finger banjo style and an all-around talent on the instrument. These, the earliest recordings featuring Best’s banjo-playing, reveal that by the 1950s Best had already developed many of the techniques for which he would become known, years later, among banjo enthusiasts.
Hall’s recordings of The White Oak String Band are also important because they document the stylistic evolution of rural music in the Great Smoky Mountains after World War II. These recordings suggest that by the late-1950s—nearly two decades after social life in the Smokies area had been irrevocably altered by the creation of the park—older music traditions co-existed alongside more modern, commercial sounds in the repertoires and styles of local musicians. The music of The White Oak String Band—and particularly Best’s banjo-playing—serves as a compelling example of that process.
This album’s subtitle merits some explanation. In terms of repertoire and style, the performances heard herein borrow equally from old-time music and bluegrass music, while giving a nod to early country music. Granted that accurately characterizing these noncommercial field recordings is inevitably challenging, the descriptor “old-time bluegrass” in the subtitle is intended to evoke the hybrid approach employed by these musicians. In his introductory spoken comments to the 1959 sessions (a segment of which is heard at the beginning of this album), Williams described the music made by The White Oak String Band as “country-style,” but that statement was uttered before the term “bluegrass” was universally used to describe the particular type of commercial stringband music inspired from the mid-1940s forward by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. Williams likely used the term “country-style” rather than “old-time” to describe the music of The White Oak String Band because the musicians within the group regularly performed commercial country (then referred to as country and western) music in addition to traditional tunes and songs. Indeed, these musicians should not be considered exclusively as having been “old-time” preservationists interpreting traditional sounds because they also valued contemporary material. Granted that “old-time bluegrass” would not have been how the members of The White Oak String Band would have characterized their music in the 1950s, that coinage today effectively serves to describe the music made at Williams’ house in 1956 and in 1959.
Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band complements the documentary work of an earlier album, likewise released by the Great Smoky Mountains Association: Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music: 34 Historic Songs, Ballads, and Instrumentals Recorded in the Great Smoky Mountains by ‘Song Catcher’ Joseph S. Hall. That earlier album, a 2013 Grammy Award nominee in the Best Historical Album category, featured a representative sampling of 1939 recordings of amateur musicians then being relocated from their homes in the Smokies by the federal government in order to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Whereas Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music compiled recordings from over two dozen individual musicians or music acts from across the Smokies—recordings that, predating the emergence of bluegrass, surveyed the diverse, mostly traditional repertoire and performance styles common in the Smokies during the Great Depression—Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band features the music of one small circle of 1950s-era Smokies-area musicians whose music reflected postwar influences, mixing a largely old-time repertoire with bluegrass and modern country sounds and sensibilities.
The Recordist: Joseph Sargent Hall
Hall, who recorded all the performances by The White Oak String Band on this album, was born August 23, 1906. He first travelled to the Great Smoky Mountains in 1937 upon being offered a summer job documenting the cultural life in the Smokies in anticipation of the imminent relocation of people by the national park. Hall initially focused on the phonetics of speech among Smokies residents, and in 1937 he transcribed speech fragments by hand into notebooks. In 1939, Hall conducted additional research in the Smokies, but this time he used a sound recording machine. In gathering evidence of the distinctiveness of Smokies speech during this phase of his research, Hall collected several aspects of verbal culture, including hunting and ghost tales, sayings, and proverbs. He also began documenting music as well as such nonverbal aspects of regional culture as customs and beliefs. (A sampler of the 1939 music recordings can be heard on Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music.)
Hall’s dissertation work was published in 1942 as The Phonetics of Great Smoky Mountain Speech, and he subsequently launched a career teaching at Pasadena City College. Hall continued to return to the Smokies periodically—including in 1956 and 1959—through the 1980s. Drawing from his research in the Smokies, Hall compiled several books: Smoky Mountain Folks and Their Lore (1960), Sayings from Old Smoky: Some Traditional Phrases, Expressions, and Sentences Heard in the Great Smoky Mountains and Nearby Areas (1972), and Yarns and Tales from Old Smoky (1978). Hall died February 14, 1992, in Oceanside, California, aged 85. A posthumous work, Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, was published in 2004, co-written by Michael Montgomery.
The Emcee: Teague Williams
William Teague Williams organized, hosted, and emceed the 1956 and 1959 sessions held in his home for Hall. All the sessions occurred in the living room of Williams’ house on a small knoll about 1/2 mile from the Pigeon River in Haywood County’s Upper White Oak community (located not far from the Cataloochee Valley section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Born March 31, 1921, Williams was Carroll Best’s brother-in-law (Williams had married Carroll’s sister Alpha Irene Best). Like Carroll Best, S. T. Swanger, and Don Brooks, Williams had served in the U.S. Navy. French Kirkpatrick, a former neighbor, says that Williams was “the salt of the earth”—someone who “always wanted to make sure that everyone was taken care of.” Given his nature, Williams was selected as the chairman of the board of deacons at nearby White Oak Baptist Church. Gregarious and loquacious, he is still remembered for often beginning a sentence with the expression “By jiggers.” Williams naturally assumed the role as master of ceremonies during all the recording sessions, and his spoken introductions are preserved on Hall’s original tapes (only one such introduction is retained for this album, heard on the first track, though a couple of other tracks feature Williams’ spoken words of encouragement to the musicians). He even sang lead on one song—“More Pretty Girls Than One”—from the second of the two 1956 sessions for Hall. According to Kirkpatrick, Williams thought that the musicians he invited to record for Hall “walked on water. The way Teague saw it, there were some good musicians in the area, but they paled when compared to the musicians who recorded at his house for Joe Hall.” Williams died July 10, 1975.
The Musicians that Hall Recorded
Carroll Best Born February 6, 1931, Hugh Carroll Best Jr. was reared in Haywood County’s Upper Crabtree community. He was the only musician to play on all the recordings attributed to The White Oak String Band. Best was the inspirational (if unofficial) leader of the band’s 1956 and 1959 sessions recorded by Hall, and all the recordings are distinguished by his varied banjo stylings (some markedly original, others revealing the influence of earlier banjo masters). The Hall recordings, constituting the earliest recordings of Best’s banjo-playing, reveal the emergence of his unique approach to playing the instrument—an approach for which Best would be increasingly recognized over the next few decades. Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band not only documents that Best’s stylistic range was broader than believed by later observers (who had limited exposure to the full range of his music), but also that Best was indisputably among the earliest players—if not the earliest player—in the melodic three-finger banjo style associated today with bluegrass. Best died May 8, 1995. A subsequent section of these notes will explore his life and tragic death, his music, and his lasting impact.
S. T. Swanger Samuel Truman (“S. T.”) Swanger (rhymes with “longer”), who played fiddle for both of The White Oak String Band’s 1956 sessions, was born March 21, 1929. Swanger’s family formerly lived in Haywood County’s remote Fines Creek area, but by the 1950s they had relocated to the somewhat more populous Upper White Oak community. Billy and French Kirkpatrick, who recorded for Hall in 1959 as part of the second line-up of The White Oak String Band, were Swanger’s first cousins (Swanger’s mother was the Kirkpatrick brothers’ aunt). Swanger served in the Navy during the Korean War, and after returning home he regularly played the fiddle at community events and dances; he was “a good hoe-down fiddle player,” remembers French Kirkpatrick. Swanger worked for the Haywood County school system maintenance department as a carpenter, and he regularly attended Belmont Baptist Church. Swanger died September 24, 2004.
Don Brooks Donald Bron (“Don”) Brooks played rhythm guitar and steel guitar during the August 5, 1956, sessions for Hall. The only member of either the 1956 or the 1959 configurations of The White Oak String Band who was not a native of Haywood County, Brooks was born August 25, 1931, in Buncombe County, North Carolina. He remained in Asheville throughout his life, other than a stint in the U.S. Navy from 1950-1954. Brooks and Carroll Best served in the same naval unit, and they often played music together both while in the Navy and after returning home. A self-taught steel guitar player and a multi-instrumentalist from a musical family, Brooks as a child once opened Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, singing “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule” while playing the mandolin. Brooks played in a succession of local country bands, and at one point he regularly performed music at the Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park located in Haywood County (in Maggie Valley). Employed for 30 years by BASF Corporation at its Asheville plant, Brooks died February 1, 2012.
Louise Best Louise Best accompanied her husband Carroll Best in the July 21, 1956 recording session held at Williams’ house, and she sang on one of the three songs included on this album, “You All Come.” (Louise sang a second song with The White Oak String Band for Hall—the country standard “Please Release Me”—but the section of tape containing that 1956 performance deteriorated over time.) Born Louise Presnell on April 26, 1938, and reared in Haywood County’s North Crabtree community, she hailed from a large family that regularly sang in church. On Sundays when not quite a teenager, Louise performed church music with her sisters for Waynesville radio station WHCC. Married in June 1956, Louise and Carroll lived in the Best family’s 1903 farmhouse, located on a large farm that had been in that family for six generations. Louise still lives on the Best farm today, now reduced in size because of subdividing.
Raymond Setzer Born April 24, 1923, Raymond Setzer grew up in Haywood County’s Maggie Valley community. French Kirkpatrick recalls that “Everyone in the area wanted to hear Raymond sing, and he could sing any kind of a song.” Setzer was also a skilled rhythm guitarist who, according to Kirkpatrick, could play early bluegrass rhythm guitar “on a level with Lester Flatt.” During the 1959 sessions at Williams’ house, Setzer sang lead on the Mac Wiseman song “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home,” and Setzer played rhythm guitar on several other recordings during those sessions (Hall’s session notes do not clarify who played guitar on several 1959 recordings, but French Kirkpatrick maintains that Setzer was the guitarist who played on “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” “Down Yonder,” “Fire on the Mountain,” and the 1959 version of “Home Sweet Home”). The Kirkpatrick brothers first met Setzer in the early 1940s when he was brought to their house by local fiddler Jerry Price to make music with the Kirkpatrick family. At the time of the 1959 sessions at Williams’ house, Hall already knew Setzer because, as a member of The Cataloochee String Band, the musician had participated in recording sessions for Hall held elsewhere in Haywood County on July 1 and 16, 1956. In the later 1950s, Raymond’s brother Sam Setzer would front The Carolina Pals, a band that also included Best and the Kirkpatrick brothers. Sam Setzer, though, did not record with The White Oak String Band for Hall. Raymond Setzer resides in the Ratcliff Cove section of Haywood County.
Billy Kirkpatrick Billy Kirkpatrick played fiddle throughout the 1959 sessions at Williams’ house. Born Edward Billy Kirkpatrick on November 5, 1932, Billy Kirkpatrick grew up in Haywood County’s Upper White Oak community. Musically speaking, he was a child prodigy, performing on-stage and over radio station WWNC in Asheville at a young age with The Kirkpatrick Family, a band led by his father. As a CBS affiliate, WWNC was required to ensure that performers were at least 12 years of age before appearing on its programs. Billy Kirkpatrick was not yet 12, but Reid Wilson, host of the station’s popular Saturday Night Roundup show, ignored the age-restriction because of the boy’s obvious talent and showmanship. According to French Kirkpatrick, his brother could play the fiddle at a professional level before he turned 15.
Billy Kirkpatrick served in the U.S. Army for two years (1954-1956), and performed at numerous venues while stationed in Europe. Upon returning to Haywood County, he joined The Carolina Pals, a band that featured his fiddling but that also included Carroll Best on banjo, Sam Setzer on lead guitar and vocals, and younger brother French Kirkpatrick on rhythm guitar. The Carolina Pals played around Haywood County and in other nearby venues through 1960, at which time the musicians went their separate ways.
Living in Haywood County (except for a stint in Florida) and performing music locally in a succession of bands, Billy Kirkpatrick worked a range of jobs: at a furniture factory in Hazelwood, North Carolina; on a highway construction crew; and in a local hospital. In his spare time Kirkpatrick composed his own “song poems,” and in 1978 he submitted to the Library of Congress (for copyright declaration) a collection of such material entitled “Poems of Inspiration and Thoughts from the Smokies.” Billy Kirkpatrick died April 29, 1987, and is buried in Haywood County’s Antioch Baptist Church Cemetery.
French Kirkpatrick Roy French Kirkpatrick played rhythm guitar on many of the 1959 recordings for Hall. Born October 13, 1938, French Kirkpatrick grew up in the Upper White Oak community just over the hill from Williams’ house. While still a teenager, Kirkpatrick joined The Carolina Pals, playing rhythm guitar alongside his brother Billy Kirkpatrick on fiddle, Sam Setzer on lead guitar and vocals, and Carroll Best on banjo. Learning to play the banjo from Best, French Kirkpatrick would become a respected banjo player.
In the 1960s, Kirkpatrick played with The Mountain Valley Boys, a Haywood County-based bluegrass band that performed on the Tennessee Barn Dance and the Old Dominion Barn Dance, at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, and as an opening concert act for Porter Wagoner, Don Reno, and Red Smiley. Later, Kirkpatrick played with Tall Timber Grass, a bluegrass band that built up a loyal following locally but that never recorded. Kirkpatrick worked for many years as the circulation manager for The Mountaineer, a newspaper based in Waynesville.
Today Kirkpatrick still likes bluegrass, yet he prefers other kinds of music, especially gospel (which he plays at churches in and near Haywood County) and old-time (“I still lean back on the old songs,” he says). In recent years he has released several albums featuring his performances of a range of songs and instrumentals accompanied by some talented local
musicians. Regarding his music-making while growing up in Haywood County, Kirkpatrick states, “There were many wonderful musicians in our community. We just entertained ourselves, and I wouldn’t take anything for those memories.” Today, he lives in Haywood County’s Iron Duff community.
Carroll Best and The Banjo
In an interview published in the February 1992 issue of The Banjo Newsletter (on pages 5-7) and conducted by bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg and banjo player and instruction book author Tony Trischka, Carroll Best conveyed the depth of his connections to the instrument he had mastered: “When I was old enough to pick up a banjo I wanted to play.” An affinity for the banjo, he claimed, had been passed down within his family. Best’s great-grandmother and grandmother both played the instrument in the old-time clawhammer style, and his mother, Bertie Davis Best, “played real good clawhammer,” while his father, Hugh Carroll Best Sr., played the banjo in a three- or four-fingered picking style. Other Best relatives were talented on other instruments: one uncle was a fiddler, and another played the guitar. And many neighbors were also musical, with the fiddle being the instrument most commonly played. Haywood County was “full of tremendous fiddle players,” Carroll Best said, “so I just pursued the fiddle type banjo.”
Best began playing the banjo in 1936, at the age of 5. His first public performance occurred 5 years later, in 1941, when he played banjo for a square dance held at the Maggie Elementary School. As he related to Rosenberg and Trischka, “I grew up playing dances. My older brother would take me to them. That’s how I got to play….Very gradually I got into it. You see, these old fiddlers would play this [dance music] and that was really what I liked, was playing those hornpipes….So I just started playing what the fiddle played.” To interpret fiddle tunes on the banjo, Best developed a right-hand technique that utilized two or three fingers plucking the banjo strings as often as necessary to play as many of the notes of a tune as possible; he ultimately decided that “three [fingers] really beats two.” In picking out a lot of individual notes, Best extended the approach of his father, who played in a sparer style (“I don’t remember my Dad putting all of those notes in there”).
Growing up on the farm owned by his ancestors since the late eighteenth century, Carroll Best played the banjo at every opportunity. While his playing was influenced by his father and other family members as well as by neighbors, Best was well aware of the professional banjo players and fiddlers who made records and performed on radio. According to Joe Wilson, the Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, “Carroll loved the music of such older banjoists as Wade Mainer, and of his own contemporary, Earl Scruggs. I can recall a comment Carroll made about Scruggs: ‘He put the push into bluegrass, and it is important in his style. I play a fiddle style, trying to get all the notes like a good fiddler.’” Among the fiddlers whose music the future banjo master heard on the radio, Howdy Forrester (who performed with Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and Roy Acuff) was particularly inspiring to Best.
After serving in the U.S. Navy from 1950-1954, Best returned to the family farm. At the time his father was ill from cancer (and would succumb to that disease on Christmas Day 1955). Although Best was the youngest among his siblings, his parents knew he would take good care of the 125-acre farm and keep up with the many ongoing tasks of farming (including growing tobacco, raising cattle, and tending a 3-acre vegetable garden). A tall man at 6' 2" and strong, Best was certainly not afraid of hard work, despite the toll it took on him—he was once severely burned while igniting a brush pile; another time his teeth were broken when a chainsaw he was using to cut a tree bounced back and struck him in the mouth.
According to French Kirkpatrick, Best in the early 1950s played the banjo and the steel guitar with equal enthusiasm, yet Best was unsure which of the two instruments he should focus upon. It was Billy Kirkpatrick who, before he entered the military in 1954, assured Best that while he was a good steel guitar player, he was a great banjo player. Best heeded this advice.
By the mid-1950s Best was performing his banjo at home and in community gatherings, and his reputation spread outside Haywood County. Soon he was regularly performing at the annual summertime Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville. According to Wilson, “Carroll influenced many with his presence at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s festivals. A tight circle of mostly banjo players formed whenever Carroll took out his instrument. When I started coming to those events in the mid-1950s he was already a celebrated player, and that festival [the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival] was popular with northern visitors as well as local players. It was considerable exposure for Carroll, who was a mountain farmer.”
About this time Best received an invitation to join the Asheville-based music act The Morris Brothers. Wiley and Zeke Morris had been performing as a brother duo in western North Carolina since the 1930s, and they had worked with a succession of banjo players (including such banjo masters as Mainer, Scruggs, and Don Reno). Best accepted the offer, and appeared with The Morris Brothers in concert and on radio and television (The Morris Brothers had a regular show broadcast on WLOS-TV).
In June 1956, Best married Louise Presnell, and she moved onto the Best farm. Although she had been a Baptist, the couple would attend his family’s home church, the nearby Mount Zion United Methodist Church. Louise and Carroll would eventually have two children: Alpha Rebecca (born 1958) and Hugh Carroll III (born 1960).
Best’s mother Bertie disapproved of her son traveling away from home to play music, feeling that his first responsibility was to work the farm. Louise, though, viewed the situation differently: “I never tried to keep him from going to make music. It wouldn’t have been Carroll without the banjo.” Even so, after about two months with The Morris Brothers, Best decided that he did not want to be separated from his family. Regarding his short stint as a full-time musician in the mid-1950s, Best said (in 1993), “I always liked playing a lot, but you had to spend your life riding in a car and I got real tired of that.” For the remainder of his life, Best, despite the dangers and drudgeries, preferred working on his farm and in a nearby factory to being a professional musician; he felt that working at and near home allowed him to take care of his family. As his wife put it, “Carroll took his family over being famous.”
French Kirkpatrick reflects that “Carroll felt he didn’t need to travel to make music, he could make music at home.” And make music at home he did, according to Louise: “Carroll brought a radio or tape recorder into the fields with him, and if he heard a tune he liked, he’d run to the house to figure out how to play it. It seemed like every time Carroll came in the house from outside—even for a glass of water—he’d head straight to the living room to pick the banjo. It was a continual thing.” Indeed, Best played the banjo at home nearly every day (“he was always trying to play the tunes he loved perfectly,” remembers Louise). Additionally, Best would regularly perform with other musicians at their homes and at nearby community events and performance venues, and he would make music with friends on Sunday afternoons after church. Despite the fact that Best was a regular churchgoer, some people did not understand or respect his passion for playing the banjo. As Kirkpatrick recalls, “People sometimes disapproved of our music back then because stringbands were associated with dances. But Carroll used to say, half-kidding of course, ‘If I won’t be able to get into Heaven because I play the banjo, then maybe I don’t want to go there.’”
On the recordings he made for Joseph Hall in the 1950s, Best played a Vega Tubaphone 5-string banjo he had bought in California when with the Navy. Kirkpatrick remembers that Best also owned a tenor banjo at this time (likely an old May Bell model), though apparently Best was never drawn to playing that type of banjo. Given his affinity for the 5-string banjo, Best eventually acquired a Gibson RB-4 model with a resonator. He deemed that that banjo was too loud, and he ultimately bought an open-back Great Lakes 5-string banjo for $500 from Kirkpatrick (Best sold some calves to raise the money). The latter banjo became Best’s favorite, though he could not bear to part with the other instruments. Banjo great Sonny Osborne (of the bluegrass duo The Osborne Brothers) once tried to purchase Best’s Gibson RB-4, and though Best was no longer playing that banjo he would not sell it.
In about 1965, Best began working for Dayco Corporation, a national manufacturing company that had built a plant in the part of Waynesville known as West Waynesville. In a 1970 workplace accident, Best nearly lost the first and second fingers on his right hand (in banjo parlance, his “picking fingers”). To increase production, someone in company management had sped up a conveyer belt without warning workers. Best’s fingers on his right hand got caught up in the belt, and he immediately engaged the “emergency off” switch with his left hand. Best was rushed to the hospital, whereupon an on-duty doctor, assessing the situation, announced plans to cut off those two fingers. Best overruled the doctor and requested care from a local surgeon, Dr. Heyward Smith, who successfully sewed up the wound on Best’s fingers. After recuperating in the hospital for a week, Best went home, and, according to Louise, he, upon entering the house, walked straight to the living room, picked up one of his banjos, and played it, despite excruciating pain. Later, maintaining that he did not want to risk losing his job, Best refused to file a lawsuit against Dayco, whatever the company’s responsibility for the accident. Indeed, he often mentioned he appreciated the flexibility of his employer in granting him leave anytime he wanted to play music. Best remained with Dayco for a total of 25 years.
Throughout these years Best competed in, and often won, banjo competitions at regional music festivals, including Union Grove, Fiddlers Grove, the Asheville Folk Festival, and the Folk Festival of the Smokies. By the 1970s he was playing semi-regularly in a band called The Hornpipers (later renamed The Carroll Best Band), featuring several talented western North Carolina musicians, including banjo-player Zack Allen, fiddler Mack Snoderly, and guitarist Danny Johnson. With this band in 1982, Best recorded his first album, Pure Mountain Melodys [sic], which showcased what was by then his fully realized melodic three-finger banjo style; yet, because it was released on tiny Asheville-based Skyline Records, the album found few listeners.
In 1990, wider recognition for Best’s extraordinary abilities on the banjo finally came his way. At the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival (Mars Hill College) that year Best received the Lunsford Award. Also that year Best was invited to be on the faculty of the Tennessee Banjo Institute, a special event held at Cedars of Lebanon State Park in middle Tennessee. Best’s appearance at the TBI (accompanied by Danny Johnson) was a revelation to the many banjo enthusiasts in attendance, since many members of the bluegrass community had never before heard him (or even heard of him). Best’s
distinctive banjo technique forced discussion about his role in the evolution of the melodic three-finger banjo style. Given the impact he made upon his first appearance at the TBI, Best was asked to return to the same event in 1992. In 1994, he received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, an honor bestowed upon him by the North Carolina Arts Council. Also that year, Best was selected to perform (alongside better-known banjo players like Ralph Stanley and J. D. Crowe) on the Masters of the Banjo Tour, sponsored by the National Council for the Traditional Arts.
Other recognition for Best included invitations to appear on radio (the Grand Ole Opry and the “Wolf Trap Folk Masters” radio concert series) and on television (Hee Haw). In 1993 Best and his band recorded a second album, released on another tiny western North Carolina-based label, Ivy Creek Recordings; this album incorporated fiddling from longtime friend Tommy Hunter. Yet The Carroll Best Band with Tommy Hunter failed to serve as the vehicle for Best’s breakthrough into the broader music world because the album received only local distribution.
Sadly, the release that truly showcased Best’s exceptional talent was a posthumously released 2001 album produced by Joe Wilson, Say Old Man, Can You Play the Banjo? On May 8, 1995, Best was tragically murdered by his brother. According to Wilson, “Carroll was a happy man with just one hair shirt he had to wear: his gun-toting quarrelsome brother, Sam Best. Carroll spent much time caring for his jealous brother, and keeping him out of trouble. And it was that brother, Sam Best, who shot Carroll dead in the road.”
Carroll Best was buried near his home in the Best family section of the cemetery located on a hill overlooking Mount Zion United Methodist Church. One local newspaper article about the incident featured a quote from Bob Phillips, the mayor of the nearby town of Canton, in which Phillips said what everyone who knew Best felt: that the banjo master was “[a] real gentleman. He wouldn’t harm anybody.” In 2014, when reminded about Phillips’ words of respect for her husband, Louise said simply, “Everyone loved Carroll.”
French Kirkpatrick reflects today, “Carroll was generous—he would share anything he could with other people. He was a purist, a straight person—it showed in his playing, it showed in his character. He never drank, he wouldn’t ever get in trouble with anyone, and he always worked hard. He lived the Golden Rule.” Kirkpatrick relates that, one winter in the early 1960s when the Kirkpatrick family’s house burned down, the first person to show up was Carroll Best, who gave French and his brother Billy money to buy coats. Some years later, French Kirkpatrick, who owned horses, telephoned Best to buy from him a small amount of hay; Best showed up with a much larger truckload of hay than requested and refused to accept any payment from Kirkpatrick.
The younger musician still regrets a missed opportunity involving Best. In about 1994, when coordinating a music performance to be held at Soco Gap (adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway on the boundary between Haywood and Jackson Counties), Joe Wilson asked French Kirkpatrick to perform with Best and fiddler Roger Howell. Impressed by what he heard that day, Wilson thought Kirkpatrick should sing a couple of songs on Best’s next recording project. Just before the scheduled recordings were to take place, Best had to have dental work, and the session was postponed. That recording session never happened, for Best was murdered. In recalling that tragedy today, Kirkpatrick sighs: “It broke my heart.”
Old-time musician David Holt remembers Best as “generous of spirit, gentle and kind-hearted. A wonderful man. I remember thinking after he was shot that of all the people I know Carroll was the least likely to be shot because he was truly such a good man.” Tony Trischka adds, “While I had very little contact with Carroll, outside of my trip to the Tennessee Banjo Institute and two other occasions where I spent a short amount of casual time, he did seem like a gentle, kind man. It’s literally and figuratively criminal that his life was cut short. People were just starting to find out about him.”
“Fiddle Style” Banjo
After Best’s death, to commemorate a life well-lived and a musical journey that was fruitful if not widely recognized, Joe Wilson compiled Say Old Man, Can You Play the Banjo?, an album featuring a range of Best’s recordings from the 1970s to the early 1990s—some previously released, many unreleased. Released on the Copper Creek label in 2001, Say Old Man solidified Best’s reputation, furthering awareness that Best was a significant and innovative music talent. The album presented the banjo-player as a missing link between old-time and bluegrass, two music genres that are integrally interconnected yet whose connections are not always acknowledged.
Say Old Man also generated debate about Best’s role in the evolution of the melodic three-finger banjo style. Some bluegrass fans who heard Say Old Man marveled at Best’s approach to playing instrumentals—mostly old-time fiddle tunes—on the banjo. While Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band illustrates that the banjo-player was capable of playing such tunes in a range of banjo styles, the recordings on Say Old Man, from the 1970s through the 1990s, suggest that from at least the early 1970s (if not sometime earlier) Best preferred to interpret fiddle tunes utilizing the melodic three-finger banjo style.
Holt describes the style of banjo playing for which Best became known: “Carroll’s three-finger banjo style was clean, crisp and musical. He followed the melody of the fiddle tune he was playing, note for note. This means he could not use the normal syncopated three finger rolls to play the exact notes of the tune. His style was very exacting and precise and difficult since he didn’t rely on formulaic roll patterns.”
Despite the fact that his banjo style was complex, even virtuosic, Best balked at the notion that his style was in any way progressive (the term used in bluegrass circles to describe new stylistic developments intentionally employed to modernize the sound of, and to expand the audience for, bluegrass music). When interviewer Andy King, in casual conversation during a 1990 interview session, labeled Best’s style of banjo-playing as “early progressive,” Best quickly and emphatically corrected him, saying “No, no, no. You’re wrong. I play…three-finger, old-time, fiddle style. I just call it the fiddle style.” Best added, as if to diffuse any embarrassment he might have caused King: “They don’t know what category to put me in. That’s the problem.”
In 2014, Trischka related that “When I interviewed him in 1990, Carroll was playing those fiddle tunes in what is generally called the melodic style. He called it ‘fiddle style.’ Bill Keith developed his own version of the melodic style and popularized it via appearances and recordings with Bill Monroe in 1963. It’s a banjo style based on scales rather than the arpeggiation of chords. Scruggs style falls into the latter category.
“I originally thought of Carroll as being primarily a fiddle tune player. When I first met him at the Tennessee Banjo Institute in 1990, that was mostly what he was playing (though he did play ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ as well). Listening to the tunes on this new album [Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band], I’m realizing he had a much wider range than I had originally thought. He was also a powerful Scruggs-oriented player, and he could get down with the blues.”
Wilson long knew the full range of Best’s repertoire: “Carroll always played the traditional tunes of the mountains, such as ‘Cumberland Gap,’ ‘Sally Ann,’ ‘Johnson Boys,’ ‘Reuben,’ ‘Sally Goodin,’ and many others. He could pull up any of these tunes in a second. Many came to him from his family or close associates, such as the great long-bow fiddler Tommy Hunter. Carroll knew banjo standards from earlier recorded uses of the instrument. But he also remained contemporary, and, if given a moment to get it into his head, he could perform many country and western standards. Like most others, Carroll had a period of intense learning in his younger years, but he never stopped learning.”
Indeed, Best learned to play all the major three-finger banjo styles—Scruggs style, single string style, and melodic style. To clarify the differences between these three styles, some banjo history might prove helpful. Before Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in December 1945, the standard banjo sound heard in folk, old-time, and country music was the frailing style (or the more complex form of old-time banjo known as clawhammer). This old-time banjo style, derived from traditional nineteenth-century African American banjo technique, typically involved the striking of individual notes on the banjo strings with a downward stroke of the fingernail of the right-hand’s first (index) or second (middle) finger, followed by the brushing against all the strings with that same finger and the subsequent plucking of the banjo’s higher 5th string, creating a bum-diddy, bum-diddy sound. (In the clawhammer approach, the index or middle finger’s downward striking against an individual string is quickly followed by the dropping of the thumb to play another note in the same chord structure for that tune; the right-hand engaging in this approach looks like a claw.) To play in the older style, the banjo-player does not wear fingerpicks on the right hand since he or she is rapping against the strings with the index or middle finger’s fingernail followed by the plucking of the 5th string (or in clawhammer, other strings before the 5th string) with the pad of the right-hand thumb. In frailing/clawhammer style as in two- or three-finger style, the banjo-player’s left hand frets the strings on the banjo fingerboard to shorten the length of the strings on the fingerboard in order to articulate specific notes to be played on the banjo.
Even before Scruggs revolutionized banjo style, there was an alternative to the frailing/clawhammer banjo style—an approach involving, on the right hand, “up-picking” the strings with one, two, or three of the right-hand fingers and then “down-picking” with the thumb. This latter style was the basic approach to banjo-playing associated with Best’s father, Hugh Carroll Best Sr., and with many other regional musicians, including Charlie Poole, Snuffy Jenkins, and Will Keys. Most banjoists who played in this style are forgotten or overlooked today, but their styles were influential: Jenkins’ style, for one, had a significant impact on Earl Scruggs. Utilizing this earlier picking approach but standardizing it by stressing the use of the thumb and first two forefingers, Scruggs modernized the three-finger banjo style, increasing the style’s volume, speed, and complexity. Because of Scruggs’ example, banjo-pickers in a new type of stringband music (ultimately named “bluegrass” after the genre-defining band in which Scruggs was briefly a member—Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys) played with metal and/or plastic finger- and thumb-picks to ensure a more accentuated sound (resonators were generally mounted on the backs of bluegrass banjos to help increase the sound volume). A wave of bluegrass banjo masters (including Don Reno, Ralph Stanley, Sonny Osborne, J. D. Crowe, and Raymond Fairchild) followed in Scruggs’ wake, both imitating and extending “Scruggs style.”
As exciting and propulsive as it was (and is), Scruggs-style banjo had its limitations, as subsequent banjo players began to realize. Scruggs-style rolls articulated various notes in the chord of a song or tune, but missed some essential notes in a given melody. By the late 1950s several musicians were experimenting with new approaches to picking the banjo—new approaches that were better suited to playing the lead on instrumentals, including fiddle tunes. One approach, utilized by Reno with memorable results, was single-string style, in which the banjo player literally plucked specific notes of a song’s or tune’s melody on a single banjo string. For an arguably more exciting rendition of the full range of melodic notes, though, banjo players like Carroll Best began to employ what came to be known as melodic three-finger style.
On “Banjo Hangout,” a discussion website for banjo aficionados, Joe Larson succinctly articulated the strengths and limitations of Scruggs style, single string style, and melodic style: “Scruggs style works great for songs, where there is more space between melody notes or the notes are held longer. This allows you to provide a rolling backup in between the melody notes. It is chord based so you roll along in the chord playing melody notes as you go. For fiddle tunes, Scruggs style is used more as backup than lead. To get the melody [to sound] exactly like a fiddler might play it you have to break out of rolls and play each melody note, which often are a stream of eighth notes. You could do this single string style or for a more legato sound, you could plan it in a way that each melody note was played on a different string, allowing them to ring over each other slightly.” The latter approach referred to by Larson is, of course, melodic three-finger banjo style.
A common narrative in bluegrass circles for many years has held that the melodic three-finger banjo style is traceable back to early-1960s performances by Bill Keith, and the melodic style has sometimes been referred to as “Keith Style.” Some banjo fans have asserted that another banjo player, Bobby Thompson, had recorded in a variation of the melodic style in the late 1950s and thus should be credited for having pioneered that stylistic approach. Best’s recordings on Say Old Man, though recorded in the 1970s through the 1990s, challenged such assumptions. For one thing, Best was older—and had been playing banjo longer—than either Keith or Thompson. And in interviews conducted in the early 1990s, Best related that he had met and discussed banjo technique with both Thompson (probably in 1957) and Keith (allegedly sometime in the early 1960s). Yet, since no recordings had been issued featuring Best’s playing before the 1970s, those speculating about the origins of the melodic three-finger banjo style had no way of knowing exactly how Best’s playing sounded at an earlier stage in his career. Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band renders such an assessment possible.
While performing with The Morris Brothers, Best met Thompson, who was then performing as a sideman for bluegrass bandleader Carl Story. This was likely in 1957. The Morris Brothers and Carl Story had television shows in adjoining time-slots on Asheville-based WLOS-TV, and Best and Thompson talked on several occasions between shows. According to music writer Colin Escott, Story’s show on this station began in 1957, and Thompson’s involvement in the show probably lasted from that time through the middle months of 1958. French Kirkpatrick recalls that The Carolina Pals performed on Story’s television show, and that “Thompson watched every lick that Carroll played.” Within a few weeks after the two banjo-players met, Best was no longer a professional musician. Thompson would soon become a prominent musician based in Nashville.
In his album notes to Carl Story: Bluegrass, Gospel, and Mountain Music, 1942-1959 (a 2011 box set from Bear Family Records), Escott asserts that Thompson made the first commercial recordings of fiddle-style banjo playing when he participated in Story’s August 3, 1957, recording session in Nashville for Starday Records. Those sessions yielded four recordings featuring Thompson’s banjo, including “Fire on the Banjo,” a number modelled on the old-time fiddle tune “Fire on the Mountain,” and another instrumental entitled “Banjolina.” On pages 71-72 of the book included in the Story box set, Escott writes, “These were almost certainly his [Thompson’s] first recordings….During his brief stint with Carl Story, Thompson developed the technique of playing fiddle tunes on the banjo (the first half of ‘Fire on the Banjo,’ is adapted from the fiddle tune ‘Fire on the Mountain’). Other banjo players soon fell in awe of him; Doug Dillard recorded both ‘Fire on the Banjo’ and ‘Banjolina.’ While Earl Scruggs developed melodies out of the right-hand rolls, Thompson developed the technique of playing melodies that spun into rolls, and the birth of that style is right here.“
Thompson has received a large measure of credit in bluegrass circles for his role in creating three-finger fiddle-style banjo in part because he was documented playing that style comparatively early (that is, during the August 3, 1957, recording session). Whether or not Thompson learned that style of banjo by observing Best, Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band presents opportunities for stylistic analyses of the comparative banjo approaches of the two musicians, and a few conclusions can be drawn. For example, this album features recordings made in the summer of 1956, such as “Lost Indian” and “Cumberland Gap,” that document examples of Best playing fiddle-style banjo, one year before Thompson’s first-ever recordings.
In 1990, Trischka mentioned to Best that he owned a recording of Thompson playing the B-part of “Flop Eared Mule” in a manner very similar to Best’s rendition of that tune as performed at the 1990 Tennessee Banjo Institute; Best responded, “I may have shown Bobby that part, but I’m not sure, really. But I was doing that a long time ago…. It would have been the middle ’50s.” Best claimed to have demonstrated to Thompson, when the two musicians met in Asheville in 1957, how to play the banjo in the key of D without a capo, which Best by the mid-1940s determined was preferable for performing alongside old-time fiddlers. Before 1957, Thompson had apparently played his banjo primarily in the G position.
Believing that Best was a formative influence on both Thompson and Keith, Wilson asserts that Best shared banjo pointers with both musicians out of respect for their talents. “Carroll recalled Bobby with fondness, and a time when Bill Keith visited. There is a tape that circulated a few years ago of Thompson and Keith performing during those years [in 1964]. It is a jam session, but it leaves no doubt of how this music evolved from Carroll Best.”
Wilson is not the only one to speculate about Best’s influence on Keith: “There was a local ‘rumor,’” offers Holt, “that Best influenced Bill Keith to start playing in a melodic style. I don’t know if this is true...but I’d like to know if it is true.” While contact between Best and Thompson is easy to confirm, interaction between Best and Keith is harder to gauge. When asked in January 2014, Keith said that he had no memory of such a meeting. Louise Best and French Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, both believe that Keith was brought to the Best house by someone else (according to Kirk Randleman in a posting on the bgrass-l list-serve in 2002, that person was Asheville-based musician George Rice) after Keith had attended a staging of the annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville. But Keith has long maintained he had no early exposure to Best or his banjo style.
Shortly after Best’s banjo-playing received sudden, wider exposure after his appearance at the 1990 Tennessee Banjo Institute, Keith told Trischka: “It shocked me too. It was absolute news to me. It’s great. Where was he all my formative years? I didn’t see anyone else doing it when I was learning. If I had, I probably would have copied it. I think the technique goes back as far as classic banjo. Remember, I wasn’t the one who called it ‘Keith Style.’ It vindicates the technique, that people used it that long ago, and will continue to use it in the future.”
In January 2014, when asked if Best might have had some influence on his own banjo style, Keith said: “When I finally heard Carroll play live (in 1990, I think), he was using some melodic elements, but that didn’t surprise me because it had been almost 30 years after I had recorded tunes in the melodic style with Bill Monroe in March of 1963, and I had recorded a couple of tunes before I went to work with Bill (‘Devil’s Dream’ and ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe,’ recorded in 1962). And a lot of players were playing in that style by the time I heard Carroll play live. So his playing certainly was not an influence on me.”
Denying having had contact with—or knowledge of—Best before 1990, Keith asserted in 2014 that he was moved during his formative years to explore melodic three-finger banjo style from a fiddler, not from a fellow banjo player: “I can honestly say that I began to explore the melodic style when I heard a lady fiddler from Nova Scotia play ‘Devil’s Dream’ in 1960 or 1961, and I was working on ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’ in 1961 while I was in Air Force basic training in Texas. I mailed a postcard to Eric Weissberg on that occasion mentioning ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe,’ and he still has the card, clearly postmarked December 2, 1961, and I have a copy.”
In recent years a few people on “Banjo Hangout”—people motivated by their close relationships with Bobby Thompson, Keith believes—advanced a notion that Keith learned how to play the melodic three-finger banjo style from Thompson. Keith refutes such a claim: “I first met Bobby Thompson in 1964 in South Carolina, and we sat around and played a few tunes together. He was actively playing in the melodic style. At the time he was in the National Guard, and was at home a lot of the time. I’m sure he was able to hear me playing with Bill Monroe on WSM, but of course I was unable to hear what he was up to. But nobody in Nashville remarked to me that I was playing in Bobby’s style. I feel that I was an influence on Bobby Thompson during that time. Of course, I can’t deny that he was somewhat of an influence on me after our encounter, especially his recordings with Area Code 615 [a Nashville-based ‘country rock’ supergroup that was active in 1969-1971].”
Keith adds, “One fact that emerged during that protracted discussion [on Banjo Hangout] was that Carroll Best worked in the same TV studio where Bobby Thompson worked for a while, so I feel it’s likely that Carroll influenced Bobby in playing in that style. So in that sense, Carroll played a role in the evolution of the style by introducing it to Bobby.”
Of course, Thompson’s perspective on this debate is impossible to know because he died in 2005. Around that time, Earl Scruggs said to a newspaper reporter, “I think [Thompson] has done a lot for the banjo. He was the first one to play that style of banjo [melodic three-finger] that I ever heard. And there has never been anyone to top him.” With such comments, Scruggs seemed to be positioning Thompson as a more central figure to the melodic style than Keith. During the 1950s Best knew Scruggs’ music, of course, but it is unlikely that Scruggs knew Best’s music then because Best had not released a recording and because the two banjo players did not cross paths (their stints with The Morris Brothers were years apart, and Best would not meet Scruggs until the early 1990s).
Several other people have taken a clear position on Best’s role in the evolution of the melodic three-finger banjo style. In 2008 Don Borchelt, a banjo player and teacher, wrote on “Banjo Hangout”: “I was one of a number of pickers beaten by Carroll Best in the banjo contest at the Folk Festival of the Smokies in Gatlinburg around 1970, and I can tell you he was all over the neck in melodic style by that time, anyway. That was a real epiphany for me, and based upon what I heard, I am inclined to believe that he probably was the first person to come up with the style.”
Assessing Best’s impact on other musicians, Trischka says, “I don’t believe that Carroll had much influence on well-known players, though he might have had a regional influence on some pickers.” Holt acknowledges the impact of Best on western North Carolina banjo players, regardless of their preferred styles: “Carroll influenced lots of banjo players by opening up what was possible to play on the instrument. Even though I play clawhammer banjo, I was moved to get more notes of the tune into my playing after hearing Carroll Best.”
Bill Keith feels that “Best’s music certainly has a place in Appalachian and old-time music, and I’d say he deserves notice in bluegrass music history as a pioneer but not necessarily as a ground-breaker.”
Trischka adds, “I feel that Best has been extremely important within Appalachian music, within old-time music, and also within bluegrass music. Though he was not well-known outside of his area, the fact that he had developed a profoundly important banjo style in a very short period of time, ten years before Bobby Thompson, is remarkable. For perspective, Carroll told me that he came up with his banjo style in 1945, the same year an unknown Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and set the country music world on fire. If, hypothetically, Carroll had joined Monroe that year instead of Earl, we might all be playing Best style instead of Scruggs style. And how many people create their own completely unique style of music? Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Rice, Bill Monroe. But not many others. Carroll was in very rarified company. Consider the fact that he wasn’t influenced by other banjo players. It wasn’t an evolutionary development. His style came fully blown from the brow of Zeus, so to speak.”
After thinking about the melodic three-finger banjo style for many years (and writing a book discussing the subject, Melodic Banjo), Trischka asserts that there is no singular melodic style; rather, there are several distinctive versions. Trischka admits that, because he did not know about Carroll Best when he wrote his study of the style (1976), Melodic Banjo did not mention the Haywood County banjo-player. Nonetheless, Trischka now maintains that Best is a central figure in that story: “Carroll definitely played a role in the evolution of the melodic three-finger banjo style. There are minor examples of melodic banjo playing dating back to the minstrel banjo era (mid-1800s) and to the classic banjo style (c. 1900). But no one ever developed a full-blown melodic style on the banjo until Carroll came along. Bobby Thompson also independently created a melodic style for himself in the 1950s. Then, of course, Bill Keith put melodics on the map during his tenure with Bill Monroe. He was not influenced to do so by Carroll or Bobby. As they did, he just came up with it.”
Wilson explains the reasons for the longtime neglect of Best’s role in the emergence of the melodic three-finger banjo style: “Of course Carroll Best played a key part in the evolution and spread of this style. The mass audience for such music tends to attribute its invention to those they first heard play it. But those who learned from the style were of a younger generation. They were learners trying their best to make a living from music. No one told them they were supposed to interview Carroll, and tell his story. Even the few academicians who have bothered to document such music have been painfully obtuse and uninformed. When Carroll finally was mentioned, there was an accusatory tone, one not warranted.” Many people, observes Wilson, could not believe that a farmer could also be a true artist and innovator: “Carroll performed near home for most of his life, and he lived in a remote area. He was a farmer, and farmers are taken for granted.”
According to Trischka, “Carroll’s music is not more widely known because he never toured nationally, and never recorded for a large independent or a major record label.” Holt adds, “Carroll wasn’t interested in being a traveling professional musician. This is a niche style of music, even for full-time professionals. Notoriety is difficult to come by. Carroll was known to musicians who cared about banjo and traditional fiddle music, but that is a small percentage of the population, even in southern Appalachia. Moreover, Carroll was quiet and retiring and never called attention to himself. He just loved to play music.” Wilson agrees: “Carroll loved playing more than talking. Music was for sharing, and he shared all that he knew.”
Thompson and Keith may have received most of the credit for the crafting of the melodic three-finger banjo style, but, says Wilson, “Carroll had no resentment of the fame that came to them [Thompson and Keith] but not to him. Carroll explained that he was ‘too tall to sleep in a car’ and be a professional musician. He loved his wife and children, and felt lucky to live near Waynesville in the mountains.”
“Carroll played a melodic style, but never claimed to have invented it,” Wilson relates. “He attributed it to his family, especially his father. If pressed, this most modest and genial of banjoists would admit that he ‘might have had’ a role in expanding and enlarging the style. The truth seems to be that he had a pivotal place in causing it to become fully mature and in reaching the nation.”
For Wilson, the notion that Best should be granted a more central position in bluegrass music “would amuse Carroll, who for years had to insist to contest judges that he felt his music was old-time, even though he wore three picks and did not frail. He would be proud to be recalled with [old-time banjo players] Frank Proffitt Sr. and Earl Sweet, and by the banjo students who know about them.”
French Kirkpatrick insists that his friend and mentor was the originator of the melodic three-finger banjo style. “Carroll Best invented that sound that you hear today, though he’ll never get credit for it. The melodic three-finger banjo style—in
fact, the whole progressive banjo sound—came from Carroll.” Kirkpatrick—who with his brother Billy and with Best made some of these rediscovered recordings for Joseph Hall at Teague Williams’ house in the 1950s—remains thrilled that he got to play music with the banjo master: “Carroll was the best banjo player on the planet,” French says, “and I was privileged to play with him.”
After Best’s death, his wife Louise gave his banjos to their son Hugh Carroll and their grandson Jared, both of whom have continued the family tradition of playing the banjo. According to Louise, Jared often listens to his grandfather’s banjo recordings and learns to play those tunes note-for-note.
I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home
Well, I wonder how the old folks are at homeAnd I wonder if they miss me while I roamI wonder if they pray for their boy who went awayAnd left his dear old parents all alone
You could hear the cattle lowing in the laneYou could see the fields of bluegrass where I roamYou could almost hear them cry as they kissed their boy goodbyeI wonder how the old folks are at home
Just a village and a homestead on the farmAnd a mother’s love to shield you from all harmA mother’s love so true, a sweetheart kind and trueA village and a homestead on the farm
You could hear the cattle lowing in the laneYou could see the fields of bluegrass where I roamYou could almost hear them cry as they kissed their boy goodbyeI wonder how the old folks are at home
When you live in the countryEverybody’s your neighborOn this one thing you can relyThey’ll all come to see youAnd never, never leave youSayin’ y’all come to see us by and byY’all come Y’all come Oh, y’all come to see us when you canY’all come Y’all come Oh, y’all come to see us when you canGrandma’s wishin’They’d come to the kitchenAnd help do the dishes right awayThough they’re leavin’Grandma’s grievin’You can still hear them sayY’all come
Y’all come Oh, y’all come to see us when you canY’all come Y’all comeOh, y’all come to see us when you can
More Pretty Girls Than One
Look down that lonesome roadHang down your little heads and cryI’m thinking of them pretty little girlsAnd hoping that I’ll never die
There’s more pretty girls than oneThere’s more pretty girls than oneEvery town I ramble aroundThere’s more pretty girls than one
There’s more pretty girls than oneThere’s more pretty girls than oneEvery town I ramble aroundThere’s more pretty girls than one
1.) “On Top of Old Smoky” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 01, Hall Audiotape 094.] 00:31. Announcer, Teague Williams. Tune performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
After Joseph Hall’s reel-to-reel tape began rolling on July 22, 1959, Teague Williams introduced the 1959 line-up of The White Oak String Band, calling the repertoire they were about to perform “country-style music.” Carroll Best and the Kirkpatrick brothers (Billy and French) subsequently delivered an inspired set mixing old-time fiddle tunes and bluegrass instrumentals. When locally respected singer/guitar player Raymond Setzer showed up at Williams’ house, French Kirkpatrick stepped aside, as Setzer sang a couple of songs and played guitar on a few tunes with Best and Billy Kirkpatrick.
2.) “Home Sweet Home” (lyrics by Howard Payne [not sung on this recording], music by Henry Bishop, 1823). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Track 06, Hall Audiotape 067.] 1:00. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, guitar.
Listening to this recording from 1956 in 2014, French Kirkpatrick, who played guitar during the 1959 sessions, remarked that Carroll Best was the only banjoist he knew who did not use the note-bending tuners associated with Earl Scruggs. Instead, when bending notes, Best moved the strings with the fingers of his left-hand. This performance is in Scruggs style, though Best introduced some original ornamentation (a 7th note added before a 1 to 4 chord change). Interestingly, while this well-known nineteenth century tune was part of many musicians’ repertoires (and was recorded in the 1920s by Ernest Stoneman), “Home Sweet Home” was not recorded by Flatt & Scruggs until 1961, five years after The White Oak String Band’s two 1956 versions and two years after the band’s 1959 version.
3.) “John Henry” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 05, Hall Audiotape 097.] 1:19. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
On this instrumental version of the most popular of nineteenth century African American “blues ballads,” Best combines elements of Scruggs-style as well as Don Reno-style banjo technique (the continuous forward rolls in the banjo break reflect the influence of Reno).
4.) “Tennessee Wagoner” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 04, Hall Audiotape 097.] 1:09. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
Derived from the fiddle tune “The Belle of Claremont Hornpipe” and known in such variants as “Texas Wagoner,” “Tennessee Wagoner” is allegedly named after a champion racehorse named Wagner, who in 1839 beat the noted racehorse Grey Eagle in a legendary horserace in Louisville, Kentucky. Wagner was jockeyed by Cato, a slave at the time; after that horse’s upset victory, Cato was able to purchase his freedom. Best plays rock-steady back-up banjo here, and in his three-
finger rolls he outlines some 7th chords. Williams, the host of the sessions and a fan of The White Oak String Band, would often verbalize his enthusiasm before the musicians started and occasionally while they played, as documented in this performance.
5.) “Cripple Creek” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 12, Hall Audiotape 097.] 1:07. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
Best’s interpretation of this familiar banjo standard can be characterized as ”Scruggsy” in approach, though he introduced some individualized techniques unassociated with Scruggs, including Best’s use of a 7th-fret D lick to resolve back to the 1 chord in his banjo solo.
6.) “Old Joe Clark” (traditional). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Track 02, Hall Audiotape 067.] 1:39. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, fiddle; Joyce ?, guitar.
The musicians who recorded for Hall at Williams’ house often accompanied square dances, and on this and the next recording they demonstrated their old-time hoedown sound. The insistent beats heard here were likely sounds of feet stomping on Williams’ floor—perhaps someone buckdancing. The guitarist on this version of “Old Joe Clark” and on “Grey Eagle” was a person identified by Williams simply as “Joyce,” but the exact identity of that person has not been established.
7.) “Grey Eagle” (traditional). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Track 01, Audiotape 067.] 1:22. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, fiddle; Joyce ?, guitar.
This popular fiddle tune was based on “The Miller of Drone,” an eighteenth century strathspey dance number composed by Scottish fiddle tune composer Neil Gow. An early variant of this tune was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who often played it in the White House. A later version was probably named after the racehorse Grey Eagle, who in 1839 lost a race to a lesser-known horse called Wagner (see note to “Tennessee Wagoner” above). The White Oak String Band’s interpretation of “Grey Eagle” for Hall is a “locked-in” old-time style dance performance. When accompanying an actual square dance, a crackerjack band like this might perform continuously and with no appreciable lack of focus for twenty or more minutes as the dancers went through their routines. This short snippet of a dance performance was likely intended to demonstrate for Hall one aspect of the region’s old-time music repertoire.
8.) “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home” (lyrics by Herbert S. Lambert, music by F. W. Vandersloot, 1909). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 02, Hall Audiotape 097.] 1:38. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; Raymond Setzer, vocals and guitar.
Locally respected musician Raymond Setzer joined The White Oak String Band in the performance of a song associated with bluegrass pioneer Mac Wiseman. Best plays Scruggs-style banjo in his accompaniment here.
9.) “Golden Slippers” (lyrics [not sung on this recording] and music by James A. Bland, 1879). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 06, Hall Audiotape 097.] 1:29. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
On his innovative banjo interpretation of this popular nineteenth century song, Best uses the 1st string almost like a drone by bouncing off of it while playing the melody on the 2nd string.
10.) “Dear Old Dixie” (traditional). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Track 04, Hall Audiotape 067.] 0:52. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, guitar.
Strongly influenced by Flatt & Scruggs, the musicians in The White Oak String Band interpreted several of the duo’s tunes. Flatt & Scruggs recorded “Dear Old Dixie” in 1953, yet on this version of the instrumental, Best reveals his independence from Scruggs, using different roll patterns from what Scruggs had used. And Best plays the tune in the key of D (in D position), though the tape was sped up at some point and the tune is currently heard in E flat (Scruggs had played the tune in G). Scruggs probably learned “Dear Old Dixie” from banjoist Snuffy Jenkins, who allegedly first heard the tune from Ransom and Chance Barnett of Polk County, North Carolina; the Barnett brothers apparently learned it from medicine show performers who had traveled through that county.
11.) “The Mocking Bird,” also known as “Listen to the Mocking Bird” (lyrics by Septimus Winner [not sung on this recording], music by Richard Milburn, 1855). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 04, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:19. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
While this performance is more of a showpiece for Billy Kirkpatrick’s fiddle, and while Best’s banjo solo is mostly comprised of Scruggs-style rolls, herein are some instances of Best’s distinctive melodic-like banjo playing, including a recurring scale lick during the fiddle B part; most of Best’s playing here is single-string, but the way he plays it sounds melodic.
12.) “Fisher’s Hornpipe” (by James A. Fischar, 1780). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 08, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:20. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
This, the most frequently performed hornpipe tune in Appalachia, was composed by James A. Fischar. First published in England in Fischar’s 1780 tunebook (where it was entitled “Hornpipe 1”), the tune was sometimes called “Mr. Fischar’s Hornpipe.” Traditionally played slowly and with embellishments to accompany the style of dance known as the hornpipe,
“Fisher’s Hornpipe” in Appalachia is usually performed at a fast, reel-like pace. Best’s banjo solo here is mostly roll-based except for a melodic-style last lick occurring several times in the song (a tag lick that goes up the scale after the 5 chord). After playing a melodic-style version of “Fisher’s Hornpipe” for attendees at the Tennessee Banjo Institute in 1990, Best said to Neil Rosenberg and Tony Trischka: “I was doing this [tune] Bill Keith [style] before he was.”
13.) “Black Mountain Rag” (by Leslie Keith). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Williams’ and Hall’s Title: “White Oak Rag,” Track 13, Hall Audiotape 094.] 2:01. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
For his banjo part, Best (in an unconventional technique for the 1950s) frets the 5th string when playing the melody on the A part. Some scholars think that “Black Mountain Rag,” often performed in recent years as a guitar piece (notably by Doc Watson), was originally derived from the fiddle tune “The Lost Child.” Leslie Keith, who played fiddle with The Stanley Brothers, claimed to have fashioned “Black Mountain Rag” in the early 1940s out of another tune recorded by The Stripling Brothers in 1928, “The Lost Child.” “Black Mountain Rag” was known as “Black Mountain Blues” until 1947, when fiddler Curly Fox recorded it with its current title for King Records. During The White Oak String Band’s 1959 sessions for Joseph Hall, Teague Williams referred to the tune as “White Oak Rag,” reflecting the fact that the band was comprised of traditional musicians who reworked commercial music to render it appealing to their local community; hence, they renamed the tune after their home community. “Black Mountain Rag” has sometimes been credited to another fiddler, Tommy Magness, who performed the tune with Roy Acuff.
14.) “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” (lyrics by George W. Thompson [not sung on this recording], music by J. A. Butterfield, 1866). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 19, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:39. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; Raymond Setzer, guitar.
Hall’s few field notes from the recording sessions at Williams’ house left the impression that French Kirkpatrick was the guitar player throughout the 1959 sessions. Listening to Hall’s 1959 recordings of The White Oak String Band in 2014, French identified the guitar player on this and several other tunes as having been Raymond Setzer, based on the frequent runs on the guitar’s lower strings (French said that Raymond was a master of that style of guitar playing). For his part on this recording, Best employed a banjo technique reminiscent of Reno, frequently using forward rolls.
15.) “Y’all Come” (lyrics and music by Arlie Duff [Arleigh Elton Duff], 1952). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Transcribed by Hall as “Now You’all Come,” Track 11, Hall Audiotape 067.] 1:54. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, guitar; Louise Best, vocals.
On this recording Louise Best joins her husband and Swanger in singing a lyrically shortened version of a popular country song of the day, originally sung in 1953 by the song’s composer Arlie Duff and subsequently recorded by many other country and bluegrass acts (including Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in 1954). In accompanying Louise’s vocals on this song, Carroll Best’s banjo playing is straightforward and without melodic embellishments, suggesting that he saw his role as the banjoist in The White Oak String Band as playing exactly what was appropriate for each tune or song.
16.) “Home Sweet Home” (lyrics by Howard Payne [not sung on this recording], music by Henry Bishop, 1823). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 18, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:38. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; Raymond Setzer, guitar.
Carroll Best must have loved this tune, as he chose to play it at each of the three recording sessions for Hall. And each of The White Oak String Band’s versions of “Home Sweet Home” is distinctive, proving that a familiar tune or song will never grow old if performed each time with passion and a spirit of improvisation.
17.) “Lost Indian” (traditional). Recorded August 5, 1956. [Track 12, Hall Audiotape 067.] 2:08. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, fiddle; Don Brooks, guitar.
In 2014, upon first hearing Best’s banjo-playing on this 1956 recording of “Lost Indian,” banjo historian Brandon Green said “Wow! Very melodic!” Showcasing a range of Best’s banjo techniques—including some melodic licks—this recording predates by a year the earliest melodic-style recordings from pioneering banjo player Bobby Thompson. The version of “Lost Indian” by The White Oak String Band also predates by several years Bill Keith’s earliest public performances and recordings in the melodic style. Best here employs the D major pentatonic scale played melodic style to articulate the melody, while Swanger and Brooks play the 6 major chord over what is normally the 6 minor chord. The recording is in D flat, perhaps suggesting either that Best and the other musicians intentionally tuned down a half-step or that there was an unintentional slowdown in tape speed (probably at the time of recording). According to Green, Best on this recording “touches on Scruggs style, single-string style, and melodic style in the same solo [between :55 and 1:09]; he approaches the tune as if he’s not consciously employing each style—the playing is seamless.” Some scholars have speculated that “Lost Indian” is not a single tune but rather a family of related Appalachian fiddle tunes that are similarly cross-tuned (known as scordatura)—with the fiddle generally tuned AEac#—to allow for the playing of otherwise difficult note sequences. Some fiddlers, when playing “Lost Indian,” would accentuate the tune’s title by whooping loudly while fiddling.
18.) “Whistling Rufus” (lyrics by W. Murdoch Lind [not sung on this recording], music by Frederick A. “Kerry” Mills, 1899). Recorded July 22, 1959. [The tape documents that Williams announced the title of this tune correctly, but Hall subsequently transcribed the title as “Whistling Rupert,” Track 07, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:36. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
Composed and published during the Tin Pan Alley era, “Whistling Rufus” was a popular song performed as a march, two-step, polka, or cakewalk. The lyrics were eventually deemed to be racist and were subsequently rarely sung. By the late-1950s (as demonstrated on Hall’s 1959 tape of The White Oak String Band), “Whistling Rufus” was performed in Appalachia as an instrumental reel. On this tune Best plays mostly back-up banjo utilizing a range of Scruggs-style rolls.
19.) “Lonesome Road Blues,” also known as “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 02, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:15. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
Originally a traditional African American song, “Lonesome Road Blues” became a commercial hit in the mid-1920s after being recorded by two stars of “hillbilly music,” Gene Austin and Henry Whitter. The song became a bluegrass standard after being recorded as an instrumental by Flatt & Scruggs in 1961 in the key of G. On The White Oak String Band’s instrumental version of “Lonesome Road Blues,” Best and the Kirkpatrick brothers performed in the key of E (Best played in D position, capoing at the 2nd fret). Best’s playing is mostly conventional Scruggs-style banjo with the occasional Reno-influenced lick.
20.) “Farewell Blues” (by Elmer Schoebel, Leon Roppolo, Paul Mares, 1922). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Track 03, Hall Audiotape 067.] 1:09. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, guitar.
Originally a jazz standard from the 1920s, “Farewell Blues” was recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in 1949. Best’s banjo interpretation of this tune generally resembles Scruggs’ version, though Best at one point uses the 5th string to play a melodic-like lick.
21.) “Black Mountain Rag” (by Leslie Keith). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Williams’ and Hall’s Title: “Blackberry Rag,” Track 08, Hall Audiotape 067.] 1:34. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, fiddle.
On this fiddle/banjo duet, Best mostly plays back-up rolls outlining the tune’s chords. In 1959 Best and the Kirkpatrick brothers recorded another, rather different interpretation of this same tune (heard on this album on track 13), and for both 1956 and 1959 Williams and Hall misidentified the title of the tune, perhaps suggesting that in Haywood County in the 1950s the tune was still considered part of the common repertoire of old-time musicians rather than a tune attributed to a single composer (Leslie Keith) or associated with a specific musician (as in the 1960s, when it became widely known as a staple of Doc Watson’s repertoire).
22.) “Arkansas Traveler” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 06, Hall Audiotape 094.] 2:03. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
In The White Oak String Band’s performance of this widely-known nineteenth century fiddle tune, Best follows the fiddle in voicing the tune’s melody, and his banjo solo combines melodic elements with single-string style.
23.) “Cumberland Gap” (traditional). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Track 10, Hall Audiotape 067.] 0:49. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, guitar.
In 1990 Best said to Rosenberg and Trischka: “I was playing [“Cumberland Gap”] when Earl came out with it [in 1961]. I was sort of disappointed…. Earl beat me to that.” On this 1956 version of “Cumberland Gap,” Best employs mostly roll style to play the melody, yet his technique is significantly different from Scruggs’ approach. And Best hints at the melodic style when playing the tune’s B part.
24.) “Turkey in the Straw” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Tracks 15 and 16, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:33. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
On this expressive if loose version of “Turkey in the Straw,” Best plays an arpeggiated lick at the end of the fiddle B part. This is not melodic style exactly, but Best is innovative in using the 5th string while moving up the neck to higher inversions of the 4 chord.
25.) “Bile Them Cabbages Down,” also referred to by variant titles such as “Boil Dem Cabbages Down” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 05, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:28. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
This nineteenth century African American tune became integrally associated with “hillbilly music” after being recorded in 1924 by Clayton McMichen and Uncle Dave Macon. Best plays mostly roll-style on this tune.
26.) “More Pretty Girls Than One” (by Leonard Rutherford and John Foster, 1929). Recorded August 5, 1956. [Track 15, Hall Audiotape 067.] 1:27. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo, harmony vocals; S. T. Swanger, fiddle, harmony vocals; Don Brooks, guitar, harmony vocals; Teague Williams, lead vocals.
On this classic old-time country song, originally recorded in 1929 by the duo Leonard Rutherford and John Foster, Best provides a graceful, forceful reading of the melody on the low strings. Williams joined in the music-making, singing the lead. Best did not usually sing lead vocals, but he occasionally sang baritone harmony, as on this recording. Swanger and Brooks are also heard herein singing harmony.
27.) “Fire on the Mountain” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 01, Hall Audiotape 097.] 1:30. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; Raymond Setzer, guitar.
On “Fire on the Mountain,” Best plays the melody on the B part when the tune modulates to the 4 chord (D); during this section of the tune, his banjo style is skillfully and expressively melodic.
28.) “Leather Britches” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 08, Hall Audiotape 097.] 1:08. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
For this tune, Hall’s microphone did not adequately capture Best’s banjo—his banjo-playing is difficult to distinguish from Billy Kirkpatrick’s fiddle. This recording nonetheless reflects that Best as a musician always sought to blend in with other musicians.
29.) “Banjo Boogie” based on “Guitar Boogie” (by Arthur Smith, 1945). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 03, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:38. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
This tune was modeled on Arthur Smith’s 1945 instrumental “Guitar Boogie” (a hit for Smith in 1948). Played in the key of E (Best probably played in D position with the capo on the second fret), “Banjo Boogie” bears some similarity to the Scruggs tune “Foggy Mountain Special,” which was recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in the key of G. Best’s interpretation is also similar (especially his double-time section of fast rolls) to “Double Banjo Blues,” a tune performed by Don Reno in G. But on “Banjo Boogie” Best employs striking improvisational ideas and also uses single-string style, thus taking a markedly different approach than had Scruggs and Reno on their tunes.
30.) “Liberty” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 09, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:45. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
One of many classic old-time fiddle tunes that The White Oak String Band recorded for Hall, “Liberty” is rarely performed in three-finger bluegrass banjo style. On this tune, in the key of E (Best played in D position with the capo at the second fret), Best utilizes a combination of rolls, single-string style, and melodic style.
31.) “Black-Eyed Susan,” also known as “Black-Eyed Susie” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 11, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:30. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
Best resoundingly demonstrates his melodic-style capabilities on this tune, also performed in D, though heard today in E flat because of unintentional tape speed acceleration (probably at the time of recording).
32.) “Old Joe Clark” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 12, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:32. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
Billy Kirkpatrick’s fiddle takes the lead here in playing the melody; Best uses mostly roll style to accompany the fiddling. This bluegrass-inspired interpretation of one of the most popular of nineteenth century tunes is markedly different from the 1956 old-time hoedown version heard earlier on this album.
33.) “Down Yonder” (by L. Wolfe Gilbert, 1921). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 17, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:56. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; Raymond Setzer, guitar.
According to French Kirkpatrick, Raymond Setzer played guitar on this tune—Setzer’s runs on the lower guitar strings were admired by other Haywood County musicians. On “Down Yonder,” Best uses carefully controlled forward rolls and sounds very Reno-like in places.
34.) “Soldier’s Joy” (traditional). Recorded July 22, 1959. [Track 14, Hall Audiotape 094.] 1:41. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Billy Kirkpatrick, fiddle; French Kirkpatrick, guitar.
On this, one of the oldest and most popular fiddle tunes associated with Appalachia (having been brought there by emigrants from the British Isles), Best mostly plays roll style, though in a few places he makes use of single-string technique.
35.) “Cripple Creek” (traditional). Recorded July 21, 1956. [Track 09, Audiotape 067.] 0:40. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; S. T. Swanger, guitar.
“Cripple Creek” was in the repertoire of most Appalachian musicians, including all the members of The White Oak String Band (Hall recorded the tune at Williams’ house in both 1956 and 1959). Best’s rendition of “Cripple Creek” displays his creativity on the banjo: the first banjo break echoes Scruggs but is still unique; Best in his second banjo break introduces a variation in which he starts on the third note of the scale instead of the first.
36.) “Smoky Mountain Melody” (by Carroll Best, S. T. Swanger, and Don Brooks, 1956). Recorded August 5, 1956. [Track 18, Audiotape 067.] 1:40. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Don Brooks, steel guitar; S. T. Swanger, guitar.
In his spoken introduction (heard on the original tape but not included on this album) to this 1956 performance, Williams states that this piece—featuring Best on banjo and highlighting Don Brooks on steel guitar—was collaboratively composed by the three musicians who that day were performing as The White Oak String Band. Perhaps the title of the piece is an
allusion to the 1948 movie with the same title (Smoky Mountain Melody starred East Tennessee native Roy Acuff). The focal point of “Smoky Mountain Melody” is Brooks’ skillful steel guitar playing, though Best provides solid banjo support. Brooks played steel guitar in several western North Carolina country bands over the years.
37.) “Home Sweet Home” (lyrics by Howard Payne [not sung on this recording], music by Henry Bishop, 1823). Recorded August 5, 1956. [Track 17, Hall Audiotape 067.] 1:42. Performed by The White Oak String Band: Carroll Best, banjo; Don Brooks, steel guitar; S. T. Swanger, guitar.
Best and Brooks began to play music together while in the Navy during the early 1950s, and by 1956 their instrumental duets were very tight. This version of “Home Sweet Home,” featuring the yearning sound of Brooks’ steel guitar, was The White Oak String Band’s second performance of the tune during the 1956 sessions for Hall (the other version can be heard toward the beginning of this album). Williams referred to The White Oak String Band as playing “country-style” music, and while the group primarily performed for Hall a wide range of tunes and songs from the old-time and bluegrass repertoires, the various musicians, as documented on some of the Hall recordings, were also influenced by the mainstream country music of their era.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Thanks to the following people for making this project possible: Louise Best, French Kirkpatrick, Raymond Setzer, Michael Montgomery, Tony Trischka, Joe Wilson, David Holt, Bill Keith, Neil Rosenberg, Colin Escott, Jack Tottle, Wayne Erbsen, Nick Spitzer, Charlie Warden, Ben Bateson, Brandon Green, Amy Collins, and Laura Smith. This album is dedicated to the memory of Carroll Best, S. T. Swanger, Don Brooks, Billy Kirkpatrick, Teague Williams, and, of course,Joseph Hall.
1956 and 1959 documentary field recordings collected by Joseph S. Hall
Produced by Ted Olson and Steve Kemp for Great Smoky Mountains Association
Music selections compiled by Ted Olson
Audio restoration and mastering by John Fleenor at Appalachian Media Works
Cover and booklet design by Lisa Horstman
Essay by Ted Olson
Track-by-track notes by Ted Olson
Lyrics transcribed by Ted Olson and Betsy Layman
National Park Service project assistance by Kent Cave
Recordings courtesy of the Joseph S. Hall Collection, Archives of Appalachia, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN
Additional photo credits: Louise Best: 16, 17, 20; French Kirkpatrick: 14, 18, 19; Nick Spitzer: 15.
©2014 Great Smoky Mountains Association
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