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Old-Time Texas Fiddler (1922-1929)

Eck Robertson

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Album Review

For most listeners, until the release of this CD, the easiest way to partake of Eck Robertson's fiddle playing was to catch his appearance in the documentary Festival, about the Newport Folk Festival, where he played in the middle 1960s. The 16 sides here include Robertson's history-making June 30, 1922 recording of "Arkansas Traveller," which made him the first country musician ever to cut a record, and the material follows on as late as October 1929. Those slightly scratchy 1922 acoustic recordings with Henry Gilliland are still the definitive performances of those works, 80 years after they were laid down, and they're augmented by the presence of four more cuts from those sessions, with the rest of the disc filled out by the products of his 1929 Dallas recording sessions, the next time he went before a microphone. Whether playing as a solo performer or backed by piano, guitar, or small string band, Robertson's playing reflects the extraordinary combination of dexterity and energy that kept audiences spellbound from the 1920s to the 1960s. Robertson, already in his 30s and a veteran performer when the first of these recordings was made, often sounds like two or more musicians at the same time, and the fidelity of even the acoustic-era recordings is more than sufficient to capture the elegantly nuanced, highly complex figures played by the legendary fiddle virtuoso. Among the "firsts" here is a medley of "Sally Johnson"/"Billy in the Low Ground," the earliest record of a piece (especially "Billy in the Low Ground") that was to become a bluegrass standard over the next half century; and the earliest known record of "Turkey in the Straw," sounding like it's being played on a pair of enchanted fiddles. The instrumental numbers outshine the pair of vocal recordings ("The Island Unknown" parts 1 and 2, sung by Robertson and his wife Nettie) featured here. Of course, the irony behind this whole CD is that Robertson was criminally under-recorded for much of his early career, going seven years between his first two sets of sessions — and those were his last commercial recordings of his career, despite his living and playing another four decades.

Biography

Born: 20 November 1887 in Delaney, AR

Genre: Country

Years Active: '10s, '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s

Eck Robertson can only be called the source of a hidden history of country music. Probably the first fiddler to record on record (and also probably the first country record commercially available), Robertson seems to be the pinnacle and the origin of the Fiddle Contest tradition, and at the very least, his records and contest appearances in Texas were an inspiration for a generation of fiddlers. Fiddlers were country music's first virtuosos, and that can largely be attributed to Robertson's deep...
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