“Opry” and “oprahouse” are regional vernacular often used to describe settings for folk jam sessions that are nestled in backyards across America. One of the most well-known oprahouses in the mountains of North Carolina is Ms. Nelia Hyatt’s, located in Asheville. Ms. Hyatt has been hosting musicians for over 50 years and gatherings still occur weekly. A jam at Ms. Hyatt’s is a colorful and familial scene of old couples dancing, tables of potluck food, musicians in folding chairs, and listeners leaning against the back wall.
Rod Murphy and Scot B. Morgan produced a documentary and a corresponding album about Ms. Hyatt’s OpraHouse, both of which are titled Rank Strangers. The first release on Asheville’s relatively new label Harvest Recordings, an outgrowth of the truly fantastic West Asheville record store, Harvest Records, the CD highlights bluegrass favorites performed by jam-goers, family bands, and North Carolinian artists. A copy is housed in the Southern Folklife Collection, call no. CD-7421, and I strongly recommend listening if you enjoy live old time and bluegrass. Not only does Rank Strangers present a very real and authentic portrait of bluegrass dynamics, it showcases the professional talent of these “unknown” musicians. In other words, the players on Rank Strangers may be a mash up of locals, out-of-towners, and grandsons, but they sure can pick.
We have an affinity for field recordings at the SFC, and the sonic environment of the performance setting captured on this CD is remarkable; I have never heard a more live or lively collection of songs. Whether eavesdropping snippets of conversation, or listening to crickets singing in the background, the listener is transported directly into the jam session. One of the best examples of this on the album is the energetic rendition of “John Henry,” recorded live at the Oprahouse.
Other tracks whose vivid mood and setting are particularly audible include “Home Sweet Home,” “Freeborn Man (With $50 Dollar Bill Rant),” and “How Mountain Girls Can Love”.