Swingbilly Swagger- Five Mile Mountain Road
For fiddler and founder of Five Mile Mountain Road Billy Hurt, Jr., Swingbilly Swagger is about more than just the band’s latest release. The title bears its own bravado representing an admixture of styles that rural musicians— including himself, his bandmates, and their mentors—have long absorbed and transmitted. In Billy’s home of Franklin County, Virginia, a profusion of musical influences thrive and inspire traditional musicians. And his word for this synthesis is swingbilly.
The term refers to Billy’s regional musical history. Older players that Billy met in his youth—figures that included Clark Kessinger, Burke Barbour, Jim Eanes, Clinton Gregory, Willie Gregory, Raymond Neighbors, and Bob Riley, as well the earlier presence on recordings of the Blue Ridge Highballers led by Charley La Prade, and above all, the legendary Charlie Poole—drew from a rich American songbook. They brought their music to the new media of radio broadcasts, phonograph records, and live public performances.
On this album Billy and his bandmates—Brennen Ernst, Seth Boyd, Caleb Erikson, JC Radford, and their guest Danny Bureau—play, as Billy explains, “a music meant to be danced to.” Their swingbilly repertory encompasses old-time reels, rural ragtime, blues, Western swing, 1950s-era country, and early bluegrass, in addition to more recent compositions and original tunes. Billy’s masterful fiddling, Brennen and Caleb’s virtuosic guitar breaks, Brennen’s stride piano stylings, and Seth’s facile and adaptive old-time banjo, propelled by JC’s walking bass and Danny’s washboard accompaniment all urge us to the joy of the dance. To an old refrain that tells us that “If it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing,” Billy comments, “that’s a real thing.”
Billy recently discovered that swingbilly also finds a literal precedent, validating what he and his bandmates had already intuited: In 1931, Charlie Poole’s son, James, put together a band called The Swing Billies. A recording and performing ensemble, they drew from an older country repertory that they inflected with newer sounds. “See, we was playing ‘corn stuff,’ but we were swinging it,” Poole explained (from Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp, p. 157). His band put to use what Five Mile Mountain Road came to know themselves: that mountain music has long translated popular styles into its own vernacular. Billy notes that the tributaries that get to this river are many and diverse.
Given these riches of inheritance and invention, no wonder Billy’s friends and fans have told him lately, “Finally we can hear what you were always meant to be playing.”
“The Train That Carried My Girl from Town,” arose almost spontaneously in the studio, each of the players bringing in their
own interpretations to emerge, as Billy remembers, with “a good melting-pot song.”
“Blue Sunday.” From age 13 to 18, Billy played with country and bluegrass star Jim Eanes, a vocalist so compelling that Billy found it “hard to pay attention to what you were doing because of his singing.”
Blue Ridge musician and instrument maker Albert Hash knew “Sally Was a Poor Girl,” which he shared with the Spencer family. The tune, reminiscent of Eck Robertson’s “Sally Johnson” and reinterpreted by Clark Kessinger, is, as Billy says, “one of the ‘Sally’ songs.”
“There Is a Time” comes from The Dillards, a family-based bluegrass band from Missouri that reached America’s homes via their appearances on Andy Griffith’s popular television show. For Billy, their presence validated the string band music of his community.
“I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas,” as performed here, salutes Bob Wills. Billy wryly notes that Wills sang it “in the dirty years,” when one could play “a happy song but throw in stuff that could put you in prison.”
“Wild Horse,” another dance hall number, draws first inspiration from Charlie Poole's recording.
The Davis sisters form the band's source of “Just When I Needed You,” a song made famous by Johnnie and Jack.
“Goodnight Waltz,” Billy acknowledges, “channels Clark Kessinger.” He adds that Kessinger’s presence has inhabited every second of his life.
Billy learned “Pallet on the Floor” from square dance fiddler Raymond Neighbors.
“Only in a Dream World.” Guitarist Caleb Erikson introduced his bandmates to this Don Reno piece, played here as a tribute to Reno's artistry and local presence
“Noëlle.” Banjoist Seth Boyd composed this lilting tribute to his daughter.
“Wild Bill Jones” is a widely known lyric song, Billy explains, that tells of a “tragedy . . . a story where this didn't have to happen.”
“Lynchburg Town/Don't Let Your Deal Go Down.” This splicing marks a local tradition, also transmitted from Raymond Neighbors, who drew these numbers from Charley La Prade and Charlie Poole.
“You Ain't Talking to Me,” a reworking of Charlie Poole's classic, which, in turn, owes a debt to Eddie Morton and his orchestra.
To close the album, the band explores “K. C. Railroad Blues.” Their rendition comes from Buck Ryan, who played it in 1954 on the Jimmy Dean Show, with added words from the African American father-and-son team of Andrew and Jim Baxter who recorded the song in 1927. Yet another instance of the route Five Mile Mountain Road has taken for its terpsichorean adventure down the byways of tradition.