Great Smoky Mountains Association’s “Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band” has been named among the best of the year by earning an award nomination in the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual competition.
GSMA’s compilation of old-time Smoky Mountain music, first recorded more than 60 years ago just outside the national park, has been nominated along with four other projects for the high quality of its liner notes, which were written by Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. IBMA voters will choose the overall “Best Liner Notes” winner based on the quality and professionalism of the liner notes, their contribution to the field of writing, and their ability to foster bluegrass music’s image.
“Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band” grew out of the recent discovery of recordings of Haywood County, N.C., musicians made nearly 60 years ago. Four years after the release of Great Smoky Mountains Association’s Grammy-nominated “Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music,” the non-profit national park partner followed with “Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band: Old-time Bluegrass from the Great Smoky Mountains, 1956 and 1959.” The collection features more than 30 tracks, including such old-time favorites as “Tennessee Wagoner,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Soldier’s Joy,” as well as such modern tunes as “Banjo Boogie” and “Smoky Mountain Melody.”
“The liner notes for this album grew out of my curiosity about who Carroll Best was and why many musicians – particularly banjo players – talked about him reverently,” said Olson. “When I worked as a ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was based in Haywood County, where Carroll Best lived. I played music myself locally, performing Appalachian songs and ballads to my own banjo accompaniment, but I never met Carroll because he kept a low profile. Everywhere I went across Haywood County, though, someone would gush about his unique banjo style.”
Some 30 years prior to this, in 1956 precisely, linguist and song catcher Joseph Hall made one of many trips to the Smoky Mountains. This time he traveled to his friend Teague Williams’ house in the White Oak community of Haywood County (near the Cataloochee entrance to the park), toting a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder. Gathered in Williams’ living room that July evening was a loose confederation of musicians, most of them relatives or close friends, calling themselves, spontaneously, the White Oak String Band.
Among them was Carroll Best, age 25, who was destined to become one of the most acclaimed and influential banjo players of his generation. Master contemporary banjo player Tony Trischka has called Carroll Best “one of the greatest banjoists to ever live,” yet until the release of GSMA’s CD very little information had been published about Best’s early life and career, and none of Best’s early recordings had been released. The other musicians Hall recorded that evening in 1956 and during a follow-up visit a couple of weeks later included S.T. Swanger, Louise Best (Carroll’s wife), and Don Brooks. When Hall returned three years later to make additional recordings at Williams’ house, the White Oak String Band included Carroll Best, Raymond Setzer, Billy Kirkpatrick and French Kirkpatrick.
“We today who love the Smokies and the region’s cultural heritage owe a profound debt of gratitude to linguist and folklorist Joseph Hall for befriending Smokies folks many decades ago and for recording their music and their stories,” said Olson. “It was Hall who recorded a number of expressive amateur Smokies-area musicians in 1939 just as they were leaving their homes and farms to make way for the new national park.
“My liner notes for this new album were my effort to explain the historical significance of the recordings, and also to tell fascinating, if largely unknown, stories about Carroll and the other talented musicians who were members of the White Oak String Band,” Olson continued. “I needed to conduct a great deal of research to under-stand the backstory to this particular group of recordings, yet in the process I met and interviewed some wonderful people who were associated with the music-makers that Hall documented in the 1950s, including three people who had in fact performed for Hall as members of the White Oak String Band (Kirkpatrick, Setzer and Louise Best).”
Olson also got to talk with several music luminaries across the U.S. about the music of the Smokies and about Carroll Best’s legacy. Writing the liner notes for this project allowed him to connect more deeply to the rich music heritage of the Smokies – and to help the wider world understand and appreciate the long-overlooked community music made just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park nearly 60 years ago.
“Liner notes may not be the best description of the 64-page illustrated booklet that accompanies this CD,” said GSMA’s Steve Kemp, the CD’s co-producer. “It is more like a concise but thorough history of old-time and bluegrass music as it was played in the Southern mountains.”
Recordings made during Hall’s first trip to the Smokies in 1939 were released by Great Smoky Mountains Association in 2010. “Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music,” a collection of 34 recordings of various amateur musicians, has since received widespread distribution and acclaim, including a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album in 2013.
In the running for IBMA’s 2015 “Best Liner Notes” recognition along with Great Smoky Mountains Association’s Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band are:
- Frank Godby, “If Only You Knew: The Best of Larry Rice”
- Phil Leadbetter, “Next Move”
- Randy Pitts, “Laurie & Kathy Sing Songs of Vern & Ray”
- Eddie Stubbs and Bill Malone, “Complete Recordings 1936-55, Chuck Wagon Gang”
Held annually since 1986, almost two dozen awards are handed out by the International Bluegrass Music Association to recognize the top achievements across the industry. Awards are voted on by the professional membership of the IBMA, with results of the balloting slated to be revealed at the International Bluegrass Music Awards on Thursday, Oct. 1, at the World of Bluegrass event in Raleigh, N.C.
“Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band” is available at all Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor center stores, as well as on the non-profit’s. The 64-page liner notes booklet that accompany the CD is illustrated with photographs of the musicians, their histories, their styles and the songs they played. For more information about the CD, visit www.SmokiesInformation.org or call toll-free at 1-888-898-9102 x226. Reviews of the CD can be read at http://www.smokiesinformation.org/news/carroll-best-and-the-white-oak-string-band
All CD sales directly benefit the national park. Since its inception in 1953, Great Smoky Mountains Association has supported the preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by promoting greater public understanding and appreciation through education, interpretation and research. A non-profit organization, Great Smoky Mountains Association has provided more than $34 million to the park during its 60-year history.