I'm usually pretty leery of compilation albums, having been burned countless times from used records in record stores that promised the hottest bluegrass banjo tracks but were really some obscure French band that couldn't pick right. Maybe that's just me, but this new compilation of Appalachian old-time stringband music from the Smoky Mountains–On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music–is just about one of the best, most intelligently curated comp albums that I've listened to in a long time. In some ways it seems a rather strange project. During the New Deal in 1940, some 4,000 people voluntarily (?) moved from their homes along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee to make room for the newly created Great Smoky Mountains National Park, now the most popular national park. Roosevelt himself gave an impassioned speech about the park at the time, pinning his hopes for a recovering nation with this act. The excellent liner notes for this project include some quotes from this speech, as Roosevelt says the park embodies: "The old frontier, that put the hard fibre in the American spirit and the long muscles on the American back."
You can hear that hard fiber in the songs here, which were collected from the actual displaced Appalachians in 1940. Fans of old-time music will recognize many of the titles, but here you'll hear modern takes on the strange original settings first recorded. Even a song like "Ground Hog", which I've heard a 1,000 times has new verses and new ideas, sung here by the great Alice Gerrard. I may be a bit ignorant on this one, but I had no idea that the song "On Top of Old Smoky," which is sing as "On Top of Spaghetti" to my kids, is actually a viciously dark ballad of love lost and looming death. The players here are impeccably chosen as well, from hard-core Appalachian tradition-bearers like Gerrard, Carol Elizabeth Jones, Sheila Kay Adams, fiddler Bruce Greene, John Lilly, Norman & Nancy Blake, to fabulous young discoveries like Amythyst Kiah (who we've interviewed HERE), Corbin Hayslett (whose banjo playing is staggeringly good). Of very special note to true fans of old-time is the inclusion of two tracks from the truly great brother duo Travis and Trevor Stuart. Fiddling brother Trevor Stuart tragically passed away earlier this year and the old-time community has been in mourning. It's a real treat to hear him again here, one of the very best old-time fiddlers of his generation, especially since the Stuart Brothers albums are very very hard to track down now. I'd also like to make special note of the inclusion of two African-American artists in the compilation: the great Dom Flemons and Amythyst Kiah. With black Appalachian music so frequently ignored, despite it being at the root of all Appalachian music, it's nice to see these curators making an effort for change. This is one of the most insightful, interesting, passionate, and authentic compilations of American roots music that I've heard in a long time. I encourage everyone to pick it up once it's available for sale in August 2016!