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Puttin' On the Style

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Album Review

In 2007, the Document historical reissue label gave the world what appears to have been the first Vernon Dalhart collection on compact disc using noise reduction technology to minimize the hissing, crackling, and wheezing associated with time-worn gramophone recordings. This is encouraging news for Dalhart fans as well as those who have been waiting for the folks at Document to transcend their stoic policy of issuing scratchy, unremastered records on CD. Anyone accustomed to hearing Dalhart's hoary old pressings played back on 78 rpm turntables will rejoice at the relative clarity achieved by the producers of this important release. The grandson of a Ku Klux Klansman and a native of Jefferson, TX, Dalhart was christened Marion Try Slaughter II, worked in Dallas as a teenager and by 1910 had married, spawned offspring and moved to New York City. Upon securing a bit part in a 1911 production of Giacomo Puccini's opera Girl of the Golden West, Slaughter cobbled together a stage moniker for himself using the names of two Texas towns: Vernon and Dalhart. In 1914, while cast as Ralph Rackstraw in Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, he made his first test pressings for Thomas Alva Edison's exclusive record label. Document's survey of the Edison catalog covers a time period extending from December 22, 1916 to July 17, 1929, and includes four of this singer's first electrically recorded Edisons. Legend has it Dalhart performed an audition for Edison himself; the elderly inventor was apparently impressed by the singer's knack for concise enunciation. Although Dalhart would eventually utilize his East Texas dialect as a successful interpreter of rural favorites like "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," "My Blue Ridge Mountain Home" and "Way Out [West] in Kansas," he rolled his R's conspicuously on "Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin' Caroline?" and warbled like a tenor in an operetta on "Dardanella," an "oriental" marvel of affected whimsy sung in a delirium-inducing duet with soprano Gladys Rice and backed by a period pit orchestra. From time to time Dalhart dipped into the blackface minstrel repertoire for "c**n songs" like "Razors in de Air" ("Can't Yo' Heah Me Callin' Caroline" also belongs in this category). His first massive hit was "The Prisoner's Song," a mopey lament waxed in October 1924. The most popular of his approximately 200 Edison recordings were story-songs delivered with drawling precision and accompanied by fiddle, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and/or jaw harp. Some of these are simple waltzes; quite a few deal with alienation, misfortune, tragedy, or crime. Dalhart also had a penchant for disaster tunes; although this collection does not include his famous "Wreck of the Old 97" (a Victor record), it does commemorate "The Wreck of the Number Nine" (a similarly constructed ode to train derailment), "The Wreck of the Shenandoah" (elegy for an ill-fated airship) and two dour diluvial ditties describing floodwaters in Mississippi and Alabama. The title track, "Puttin' on the Style" comes across as comparatively light and lively — two words not usually associated with Vernon Dalhart.


Born: 06 April 1883 in Jefferson, TX

Genre: Country

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s

Vernon Dalhart came to country music from outside the tradition, becoming a national star in the years just before more indigenous kinds of country music found their place in the machinery of the music industry. A 1924 recording by Dalhart became country music's first million-selling record; pairing a train song ("Wreck of the Old 97") with a sentimental ballad ("The Prisoner's Song"), the release set patterns for two key genres of early country music on record. Dalhart was born Marion Try Slaughter...
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