First Impressions: CMH Records

First Impressions banner featuring Country Music Heritage logo

First Impressions” is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.


THE ALBUM

LP album cover, features Don Reno holding banjo, Bill Harrell holding guitar, both wearing suits and sunglasses

Don Reno & Bill Harrell & The Tennessee Cut-Ups, Dear Old Dixie | FC-17121

center label from Country Music Heritage first record, wood grain background with silver textIn 1975, country music industry veterans Martin Haerle and Arthur Smith started CMH Records, and Don Reno, Bill Harrell, and the Tennessee Cut-Ups were a perfect fit for the label’s first release. Haerle had many connections from his experience at Starday Records and in the radio business, and Don Reno had performed with Arthur Smith on several occasions. Don Reno, Bill Harrell, and their band were, by 1975, long-established bluegrass musicians. Performing with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and, most famously, Red Smiley, Don Reno was a member of the first generation of bluegrass musicians that established the sound of the genre in the 1940s and 50s. Bill Harrell, too, was one of bluegrass’ most popular musicians, most successfully recording and performing with his band the Virginians. CMH, short for Country Music Heritage, aimed to give a home to these prominent, if aging, artists, many of whom had been dropped from the rosters at major labels. Don Reno and Bill Harrell had been performing together for over 10 years by the time they recorded Dear Old Dixie at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. The album features mostly original and arranged tunes by the pair, and Arthur Smith even steps in to join Don Reno on guitar on  “B.G. Chase,” an instrumental he co-wrote with Reno.

Listen to a segment of “B.G. Chase,” from Side 2 of Dear Old Dixie, here:

And here’s “Make Believe (You Didn’t Set Me Free),” also from Side 2:


The label

CMH Records advertisement, album covers and descriptions

An early CMH Records advertisement shows the prominent names in bluegrass already recording for the label. Folder 211 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).

Country Music Heritage (CMH) Records was founded in 1975 by Martin Haerle, a former vice president of Starday Records, and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, famed performer, TV host, and composer of “Guitar Boogie” and “Fuedin’ Banjos.” Their vision of the label was to release contemporary country music recordings, with a particular focus on bluegrass music. From the beginning, CMH signed long-established musicians, from the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Lester Flatt to the Stonemans, Benny Martin, and Joe Maphis. Most of these early releases, like Dear Old Dixie, were produced and recorded at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. Soon after the launch of the initial album series (starting with Dear Old Dixie, CMH-6201), CMH began releasing their popular “Bluegrass Classics” double LP series (starting with CMH-9001). These two primary series, featuring modern recordings of bluegrass and country greats, carried the label into the late 1980s. In 1990, after the death of Martin Haerle, his son David Haerle took over operations of CMH. The younger Haerle started the “Pickin’ On” series in the 1990s, which offered bluegrass cover albums of classic and popular songs, from Pickin’ on the Beatles (1999) to Pickin’ on Nirvana (2017). In this same spirit, CMH is now home to other labels offering interpretations of classic music: Vitamin Records, an outlet for the Vitamin String Quartet, releases instrumental interpretations of popular artists from Radiohead to Kanye West, and Rockabye Baby! releases lullaby versions of popular rock songs.


The Artists

Bill Harrell with guitar on stage, promotional photo

Promotional photo of Bill Harrell, Folder 236 in the Art Menius Papers (20406).

Born in South Carolina, Don Reno was raised in Haywood County, North Carolina, where he first picked up a banjo at the age of five. After a decade or two in the country music business, Don Reno achieved lasting fame through his partnership with Red Smiley as Reno & Smiley. Bill Harrell, another successful bluegrass musician, had been touring and recording with his band the Virginians. Reno and Harrell first started performing together in 1964, after Red Smiley retired from music performance. Backed by the Tennessee Cut-Ups, Don Reno could usually be heard playing the 5-string banjo while Bill Harrell joined him on the guitar and sang lead. When Red Smiley returned from retirement in 1969, he performed with Reno and Harrell until his death in 1972. After parting ways in 1977, Reno and Harrell continued to tour and record with their respective bands for the rest of their lives.

Here is a brief segment of an interview between Alice Gerrard and Bill Monroe, from the Alice Gerrard Collection (20006), in which Bill Monroe discusses Don Reno’s impromptu “tryout” for the Blue Grass Boys:

Alice Gerrard: How'd you happen to meet Don?
Bill Monroe: Don Reno?
AG: Yeah.
BM: Oh, uh, I guess he'd heard that, you know, that Earl [Scruggs] had 
quit, and he was going to be the next banjo player, you know, whether 
or not.
AG: Yeah. [Laughter]
BM: He got into Nashville and we'd done gone, we'd left on Saturday 
night, and he -
AG: Oh no...
BM: He followed us right on back into Taylorsville, North Carolina, 
and -
AG: Persistent, anyway...
BM: And Earl was working his two weeks down there, and he [Don Reno] 
came right down through the audience with his banjo, take the banjo out,
walked right out on the stage where we were.
AG: Oh, that's great, that's really great. And did he just -
BM: Nobody didn't ask him to come out or nothing.
AG: [Laughter] Did it tickle you at the time or were you kinda mad?
BM: No, it came as a surprise, and tickled us, too. But Earl would take 
a break while Don would get up and play.
AG: Oh no! That's a riot, Bill...
BM: I tell that on Don now, but you know, that kinda gets away from him, 
but that's really the truth.
AG: That's really funny... How old was he then? Do you have any idea?
BM: Uh, I don't know - he's a little older than Earl, or a little 
younger, I believe, isn't he?
AG: I guess he's probably a little bit younger. Was he pretty young, 
though, when he came? Well, he must have been, to have that much nerve! 
I tell you, only a young kid would have -
BM: He wanted that job, though, he knew what it would mean to him.

Listen to the full interview, on FS-20006/8640, here. Streaming access to this recording were made possible through the SFC’s ongoing audiovisual preservation grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


The local connection

Arthur Smith was born in South Carolina, where he also began his musical career, but he achieved most of his success in Charlotte, North Carolina. After moving to Charlotte in 1943 to appear on WBT radio’s Carolina Calling, and was also featured on the later TV iteration of the show. Arthur Smith’s own The Arthur Smith Show was the first nationally syndicated country music television show, and ran for 32 years. When Smith’s 1955 recording “Fuedin’ Banjos,” which he had recorded with Don Reno, was reinterpreted without credit as “Dueling Banjos” in the 1972 film Deliverance, he successfully sued Warner Bros. for a substantial settlement and a songwriting credit. In 1957, Smith established Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, the location of many seminal recordings and prominent radio shows, as well as much of the CMH Records catalog of releases.

In a recording studio, seated in front of microphones, Arthur Smith, late middle aged, wearing headphones, in a red short sleeve shirt and purple boots holds a guitar, Don Reno, wearing headphones and classes, with blue longsleeve shirt, blue pants, and cowboy boots, playing a banjo

Don Reno and Arthur Smith (in the purple boots) in the studio recording “Feudin’ Again” on Nov. 17, 1978. From Roll Film Box P081/120C-2 in the Hugh Morton Photographs and Films (P0081) in the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives. Search the Hugh Morton Collection here.


Show me more!

There is plenty of more information related to Don Reno, Bill Harrell, Arthur Smith, and CMH Records in the Southern Folklife Collection, as well as an extensive portion of the CMH catalog on LP, CD, and cassette. Check out a few other documents of interest below or search the collection yourself.

Song folio cover, features two red stars, with the faces of Don Reno and Red Smiley on each star

Don Reno & Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, Song and Picture Folio No. 4. Song Folio FL-184 in the Southern Folklife Collection Song Folios (30006).

Cover of a CMH Records newsletter called Midnight Flyer, featuring an illustration of a train

Midnight Flyer, no. 1 (1980). Several of these newsletters can be found in Folder 211, SFC Discographical Files (30014).

Cover of a song folio, featuring Don Reno and Red Smiley dressed as Union and Confederate soldiers leaning against a tree with their guns

Don Reno & Red Smiley: Song and Picture Folio No. 2. Song Folio FL-185 in the Southern Folklife Collection Song Folios (30006).

 

First Impressions: Arhoolie Records

Image

title banner, Arhoolie Records, El Cerrito, California, 1960 to 2016

First Impressions is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.

THE ALBUM

Album cover of Mance Lipscomb's Texas Sharecropper and Songster, features black and white photo of Mance playing guitar

Mance Lipscomb, Texas Sharecropper and Songster | FC-457

center LP label, Mance Lipscomb, featuring Arhoolie Reccords logo and track listing

In 1959, Chris Strachwitz, a high school teacher living in California, set out for Texas hoping to meet and record one of his heroes, Lightnin’ Hopkins. Unable to find him, he resolved to return the next year, this time with a longer list of musicians to find and record. He had been buying and selling old 78 rpm records for several years, providing him with a little extra cash to buy some basic recording equipment. In 1960, with Mack McCormick’s help and a few tips from people along the way, he managed to meet Mance Lipscomb at his Navasota home. Texas Sharecropper and Songster is the product of recordings made that day, with the 65-year-old singing 14 songs he had picked up over a lifetime of playing music for friends, family, and both white and African-American dances. This impromptu session was Lipscomb’s first recording, and Strachwitz was initially unimpressed: “To be honest, I didn’t like his music that much – I love tough, nasty, old blues, and Mance was so pretty” (Goodwin, 1981). Of course, as Mance’s music elevated Arhoolie Records to a full-time venture, it must have grown on him: Lipscomb recorded 5 more albums for the label before his passing in 1976.

Listen to “Shake, Shake, Mama” from Side 2 of Texas Sharecropper and Songster:

The label

covers of three Arhoolie Records catalogs, featuring album covers

Assorted Arhoolie Records catalogs from the SFC Discographical Files (30014), Folders 59-61.

Arhoolie Records takes its name from a word for a field holler, more often referred to as a “hoolie.” Chris Strachwitz founded the label in 1960, ultimately establishing its headquarters in El Cerrito, California. Arhoolie primarily released original recordings of living musicians, whereas two of Strachwitz’s later ventures, Blues Classics and Old Timey Records, were devoted to reissues of older recordings. Chris Strachwitz remained at the helm for the label’s lifetime, continuing to record and release all varieties of music, and leading the transition into the CD and digital realms. In May of 2016, Smithsonian Folkways acquired the Arhoolie catalog, and Texas Sharecropper and Songster was one of the first batch of albums re-released by the new label owners.

The Founder

The founding of Arhoolie Records marked Chris Strachwitz’s first big step into the world of traditional music, but the label will be far from his only legacy. After moving to the United States from Germany in 1947, Strachwitz could hardly seem to stay away from the music. His passion for collecting 78s evolved into the Arhoolie Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to preserving and sharing his extensive collection. He started the Old Timey and Blues Classics labels soon after founding Arhoolie to release out-of-print recordings of blues and old-time musicians. Through Arhoolie, he published the Arhoolie Occasional and The Lightning Express, periodicals devoted to spreading information about blues music and recordings. Through a long-time friendship with documentary filmmaker Les Blank, he supported the production of documentaries on Arhoolie musicians like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Below is a segment from a 1981 interview by Strachwitz with Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Recordings, from the Archie Green Collection (20002).

Chris Strachwitz (CS): I’d like to get some of this on tape about your feelings in regard to reissuing old material or, that is, recordings that are really historical that have not been used by the major labels. You were certainly one of the first people to take a stand on this, weren’t you?

Moses Asch (MA): That’s right.

CS: What’s your attitude on this?

MA: Well, there’s a section in the Constitution of the United States, in which it says, “People have a right to know.” It’s part of the copyright, first copyright law of the land. And in there it says that no one is permitted, if they want the people to benefit, to take something out of circulation. If you buy a car, the manufacturer must have a replacement part as long as the car is operational. Otherwise, they lose all rights to the car. And I apply that same attitude to recordings. Once I feel that the manufacturer or the producer or the one that had the recordings originally issued the record, and then the record is not available, and it’s left out of their catalog, they throw that record into public domain and anyone can use it.

Listen to the full interview here. Digitization and streaming access to this recording were made possible through the SFC’s ongoing audiovisual preservation grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation:

SFC Audio Cassette FS-20002/11183 (digitized)

Tape 28: Chris Strachwitz interviews Moses Asch, 1981

Audiocassette

The local connection

Album cover, Elizabeth Cotten's Live!, features close-up color photo of Cotten's face

Elizabeth Cotten, Live! | FC-17741

Elizabeth Cotten was born in Chapel Hill in 1893, the youngest of five children. After moving around the Southeast for many years, she settled as an adult in the Washington, D.C. area. Eventually, she came to work for the Seeger family of musicians, who, after hearing her play, helped expose her unique performance and songwriting abilities to the world. Most famous for her composition “Freight Train,” Cotten released just four solo albums in her lifetime: a series of three LPs for Folkways and Live!, a 1983 collection of live performances on Arhoolie Records.

Show me more!

The Southern Folklife Collection holds plenty of additional Arhoolie Records-related documentation, as well as a significant portion of the Arhoolie Records catalog on LP and other formats. Check out a few other documents and collections of interest below or search the collection yourself.

same black and white photo of Mance Lipscomb from album cover, holding guitar

Promotional photo from the release of Texas Sharecropper and Songster, from the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records (20001).

Cover of the Lightning Express, no. 3 (1976). 0versize Paper OP-20245/16 in the Goldband Recording Corporation Collection (20245), with photographs of Clifton Chenier with accordion, Charlie Musselwhite with harmonica, and Narciso Martinex with accordion and group. Also features illustrations of traditional music genres illustrated by R. Crumb including: Blues, Tex-Mex, Jazz, Cajun, Novelty, Gospel, Polka, Folk

Lightning Express, no. 3 (1976). 0versize Paper OP-20245/16 in the Goldband Recording Corporation Collection (20245)

Cover of Arhoolie Occasional with photos of Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomp, Clifton Chenier, Narciso Martinez, and others

Arhoolie Occational, no. 1 (1971). 0versize Paper OP-20245/16 in the Goldband Recording Corporation Collection (20245)

Front page of Arhoolie Occasional with articles about making Arhoolie LPs, Dr. Harry Oster's Folklyric Label

Arhoolie Occational, front page, no. 1 (1971). 0versize Paper OP-20245/16 in the Goldband Recording Corporation Collection (20245)

First Impressions: a virtual exhibit of “first records” from independent record labels in the Southern Folklife Collection

We love all of our sound recordings at the Southern Folklife Collection, and of course we especially love our 12″ LPs. Library staff are always working to make more of our records discoverable in the UNC Libraries online catalog, but first we need to sort through new accessions and do some inspection and quality control to get them ready for our Wilson Special Collections Library Technical Services team.

Through this process, we began to notice several “first records.” These albums, the first full-length releases by independent record labels, were fascinating and downright good listens in their own right. Collectively, however, they offer a valuable point of entry into the overwhelming catalogs of the many labels in the archive. The SFC holds a growing collection of tens of thousands LPs, spread across far too many labels to list here. Some of these labels are familiar, from early giants like Columbia and Victor, to folk music mainstays like Folkways. Still others are virtually unknown, like the often short-lived local, one-artist, or one-album ventures that appeared from time to time. For the most part, the labels presented here exist in a middle ground between these two extremes, releasing what could be broadly defined as vernacular music from a variety of traditions (folk music, blues, cajun music, zydeco, bluegrass, country, conjunto, etc.).

From off-shoots of non-profits to international operations, these labels and their founders were united by a common goal: to share the music they felt passionately about with as many people as possible. In some cases, recording the specific musicians on these first albums was the primary motivation for a label’s founding. Many of these labels are still releasing music, while others folded after only a few releases. Still others formed sub-labels, or were bought by or merged with like-minded collaborators, forming a sort of tangled family tree. The aim of this series is to provide a starting point for research, adding context to these recordings, the artists, the music, and the labels that formed with their release. Most of all, we hope you enjoy the music.

The first installment of “First Impressions”: Arhoolie publishes tomorrow, Thursday, November 15. We’ll put up a new post in the series every couple of weeks. Follow along here.