Come Grammy night on Feb. 10, the Great Smoky Mountains Association will find itself in an unlikely situation: competing for Best Historical Album against the likes of Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys, and Woody Guthrie. While Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music may not have the pop hooks of Ram or The Smile Sessions, this CD compilation of recordings made by "song catcher" Joseph S. Hall in 1939 certainly has got a lock on historical significance.
Hall, a graduate student from California at the time, was originally hired by the federal government to record mountain speech and stories as hundreds of families were being relocated from their homes to make way for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to CD co-producer/GSMA interpretive products director Steve Kemp, Hall lived with families there in 1937-38, helping on their farms and attending social gatherings while making his recordings. In 1939, accepted as part of the community, he started recording music as well.
"These rare field recordings are highly significant," Kemp says. "While today most people think of mountain music as bluegrass, bluegrass had not even been invented in 1939. These recordings show that mountain musicians were listening to music on the radio and at pickin' parties and adopting songs with blues heritage and contemporary pop music. It also reflects their heritage of the British Isles with many ballads and instrumentals."
Stored in park archives, the original acetate disks and cylinders were retrieved for the CD project at the urging of professors Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina) and Ted Olson (East Tennessee State University), who also wrote extensive essays for the release. Sound engineer John Fleenor, ETSU's media preservation specialist for the Archives of Appalachia, did all of the restoration work. Meanwhile, graphic artist (and former Metro Pulse art director) Lisa Horstman designed the CD package, using vintage photos from the National Parks Service inside and a photo (by MP contributor David Luttrell) of contemporary fiddler Charlie Acuff on the cover.
"An exciting part of the project has been sharing this CD with the many relatives of the musicians recorded on the CD," Kemp says. "They have been overwhelmed at hearing the voices and music of their parents and grandparents and siblings after 70 years."
Kemp and Horstman will attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles along with their significant others. While Horstman vows to "hide under the seat" should the CD win, Kemp says he's up for the escapade itself.
"I'm not sure we will ‘blend,' but it should be a hoot in a Beverly Hillbillies-esque wacky adventure," he says. "My wife went to the same high school in Ohio as the Black Keys, so she's sure they'll become fast friends."
The album can be ordered on iTunes and from smokiesinformation.org.