We were thrilled to see our colleague, collaborator, and constant source of inspiration Dr. William R. Ferris honored with two Grammy awards at yesterday’s ceremony for the box set Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris. Ferris, along with compilation producers April Ledbetter and Lance Ledbetter of record label Dust-to-Digital and mastering engineer, Michael Graves, received Grammy recognition for “Best Historical Album” and Ferris, along with David Evans, also won for “Best Album Notes.” Materials for the box set come from the William R. Ferris Collection (20367) that is part of the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library here in the University Libraries at UNC Chapel Hill.
Over the past decade, archivists, audio engineers, photo technicians, students, researchers, and Bill Ferris himself have worked to arrange, describe, and digitize the more than 250,000 sound recordings, photographs, videos, films, papers, and ephemera that make up the William R. Ferris Collection. Thanks to the dedicated teams at Wilson Library and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a few thousand of these sound recordings, videos, films, and photos are digitized and can be streamed or viewed in their entirety online. It’s exciting to think of listeners hearing a track on Voices of Mississippi and then be able to find that recording and many others in the William R. Ferris Collection (20367) finding aid. They may want to hear more of Lovey Williams, or to hear James “Son” Thomas playing in a juke joint, or Fannie Bell Chapman singing in her back yard
These examples are the smallest sample of the opportunities available to interested researchers and listeners and explorers of the rich cultural history and beautiful human artistry documented by Dr. Ferris. B. B. King recorded at home, extensive conversations with brilliant minds like Eudora Welty, Walker Evans, Alice Walker, tales told by Ray Lum and Victor Bob and many, many others are streaming online. There are also thousands of photographs digitized and searchable through the William R. Ferris Collection Digital Photographs.
It is exciting to see recognition for the work that Dr. Ferris dedicated his life to. It is also exciting to see recognition for the people of Mississippi who, in Bill’s words, “so courageously shared their stories.”
That list is long, but to start, thanks to Scott Dunbar, Lovey Williams, Walter Lee Hood, Tom Dumas, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Wash Heron, Wallace “Pine-Top” Johnson, Sonny Boy Watson, Mary Alice McGowan, The Southland Hummingbirds, Liddle Hines, Mary and Amanda Gordon, Reverend Isaac Thomas, Bobby Rush, Barry Hannah, Joe Cooper, Joe Skillet, Shelby “Poppa Jazz” Brown, Pete Seeger, Charles Seeger, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Victor Bobb, Cleanth Brooks, Fannie Bell Chapman, Edith Clark, Leon “Peck” Clark, Bill Clinton,
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Willie Dixon, John Dollard, Louis Dotson, Walker Evans, Marcie Cohen Ferris, Shelby Foote, Ernest J. Gaines, Allen Ginsberg, Theora Hamblett,Bessie Jones, B.B. King, Alan Lomax, Ray Lum, Arthur Miller, Ethel Wright Mohamed, Ola Belle Reed, Harry Smith, James “Son” Thomas, Othar Turner, Alice Walker, Pecolia Warner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and members of the Rose Hill Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Miss.
Our sincerest thanks and gratitude to all of these individuals and many more unnamed, for their willingness to share parts of their lives with Dr. Ferris and then with all of us. But once more, many congratulations to our friend Bill Ferris and his fellow award winners Lance, April, Michael, and David. We can’t wait to hear what stories you will turn up next.
This past weekend, friend of the Southern Folklife Collection (and to all of Chapel Hill/Carrboro/humanity) Bill Smith worked his last official shift as executive chef of Crook’s Corner restaurant. It is impossible to quantify the amount of joy and happiness that Bill has brought to so many people over the last five decades as a chef, former co-owner of the Cat’s Cradle, community leader, and friend. In honor of his illustrious career, we pulled a few special items from the Bill Smith T-Shirt Collection (20498). These well-loved, and well-worn, t-shirts were collected by Smith over the years, attending shows after shifts at Crook’s. In honor of Smith’s stature in our community, we have chosen shirts representing local bands including; Johnny Quest, Shiny Beast, Spatula, Erectus Monotone, and the Merge Records 10th anniversary shirt. We can only imagine what delicious things Smith was cooking up while wearing these in the kitchen. Perhaps those stains on the Erectus Monotone shirt below could come from one of his signature dishes Atlantic Beach Pie? Shrimp and Grits? Green Tabasco chicken? We can’t wait to see what Smith get’s into next. From all of us: thank you, Bill Smith.
Nashville really likes holiday records it seems. The collage above is just a few from the Southern Folklife Collection LPs. We’ve got a few more treats to share over the next few days, but for now, a bit of “A Christmas To Remember” from FC-15906, Kenny Roger and Dolly Parton’s classic Once Upon a Christmas released on RCA in 1984. If you can determine what is happening in the top left image below, please let us know.
“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.
In 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:
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.
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?
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
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,
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.
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.
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.