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Album Review

Hamper McBee was the sort of one-of-a-kind character who's all but extinct in the 21st century. Born in 1931, McBee was a carnival barker, bartender, root farmer, and moonshiner who could spin tall tales for hours on end and sang classic mountain ballads in a strong, expressive voice that would be the envy of plenty of Nashville stars. McBee was discovered by folklorist Guy Carawan, who recorded an album of his singing and stories in 1965, and in 1977 filmmakers Blaine Dunlap and Sol Korine made a documentary about McBee in which he told his tales, sang some songs, and demonstrated how to make corn whiskey. Some of Dunlap and Korine's recordings of McBee made their way on to a 1979 album for Rounder Records, Raw Mash, and The Good Old-Fashioned Way is an expanded and unexpurgated version of Dunlap and Korine's tapes. While most of McBee's musical repertoire is familiar, when he sings tunes like "Streets of Laredo," "Knoxville Girl," "John Hardy," and "Wreck of the Number 9," they sound as if time has stood still and we're hearing them as they were heard in a Tennessee hollow in the 1800s. There's no affectation in McBee's a cappella performances; he simply approached these songs as they'd been sung for generations, he had the voice and the brio to bring these classic tales to vivid life, and he was as compelling a vocalist as anyone uncovered in the traditional folklore movement of the 1950s and '60s. McBee also knew how to tell a story, and if his improbable yarns of hard drinking, brushes with the law, carnival con games, and motorcycle-riding monkeys are a bit hard to swallow, they're fascinating and often hilarious. (He also knew a good dirty joke when he heard one, and there are a few coarse passages here that didn't appear on the earlier Rounder album.) Hamper McBee was a folklorist's gold mine, but you don't have to be a student of rural folk art to enjoy The Good Old-Fashioned Way; anyone who likes good singing or a good laugh ought to have a great time with this album.

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