The Old-Time Herald Volume 7, Number 1

Features

Jim and Kim Lansford: Songsters of the Ozarks

by Jim Nelson

The old-time music scene today is an active one in which there are dozens of topnotch string bands. For the most part, these groups emphasize their instrumental abilities with hot fiddle tunes and up-tempo songs with an eye toward recreating the sounds preserved on early 78 records, or mastering the style of a particular master musician. In general, the fiddle and banjo play the prominent roles. One of the few exceptions to this trend is the duo of Kim and Jim Lansford, of Galena, MO. Having spent nearly two decades playing together and exploring a wide range of traditions which have become known as old-time music, Kim and Jim have developed a unique and highly personalized style. Despite their being somewhat insulated from the larger old-time music scene for many years, they have recently begun to attract admiring audiences through their appearances at festivals and workshops—Pinewoods, Black Mountain, MerleFest, and the Eureka Springs Folk Festival among them—and through their two self-produced recordings. They (along with banjo player Joe Newberry) placed third in the traditional band contest at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, WV last summer, demonstrating that they can indeed play the old-time fiddle music along with the best of them. Dave Landreth, a banjo player living in St. Louis and longtime friend of the Lansfords told me: "I have known Jim and Kim for somewhere around 15 years . . . Jim’s violin playing has always been amazing to me. Over the years it has stayed as solid as the first time I heard him. I can’t say he’s gotten better because he’s always been great. I never like to say that someone is ‘the best,’ but suffice it to say that I haven’t heard anyone any better. His wide range of styles is amazing… Kim’s support on either guitar or piano is driving and relentless. Her left foot is like a pounding drum. . . ."

Seeing Kim and Jim perform or giving a listen to the Lansford’s recordings reveals that they are perfectly at home with southern style string-band music, but that this is just one aspect of what they are capable of doing. Both are highly skilled and sensitive multi-instrumentalists—Jim plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle while Kim plays guitar and piano—but it is their singing and choice of material that sets them apart from their peers in the old-time music field. They have a deep respect and understanding for a broad spectrum of music. This fact is born out in the performances that are documented on their two currently available recordings, both of which have received glowing reviews in the OTH and elsewhere. The listener will be taken on a musical journey that covers a lot of geographical territory and offers a trip through time, covering several decades of early country music. And as one might expect, there is lots of fiddling. Their album, New Harmony, released in 1996, presents the Lansfords as one might hear them at a dance, with just fiddle and piano. This side of Jim and Kim reflects their ability to render good, solid dance music and reveals an affinity that Jim has for Northern Missouri-style and Canadian fiddling. Their most recent effort, Out in the Cold World, comes closer to revealing the range of traditions and sources of material that the duo has used to develop their distinctive sound. In addition to fiddle tunes learned from Clark Kessinger, Lonnie Robertson, and Art Galbraith, Kim and Jim looked to some of the pioneers of early country music for inspiration and came up with a set that includes songs and ballads from the Carter Family, the Monroe Brothers, Asa Martin, the Stanley Brothers, and a couple of country blues pieces from the Delmore Brothers and Sam McGee. Although this material is decades old, the Lansfords’ presentation of it serves as a reminder of its inherent durability. Their abilities to bring new vitality into a song expressing old-fashioned sentiments that some may feel are at odds with life today is a reflection of Kim and Jim’s deep-rooted respect for this material and the result of a musical partnership and marital relationship which has grown and blossomed for nearly two decades in the far southwest corner of Missouri, deep in the Ozarks.

Kim grew up in Kansas City and found herself living in the Ozarks when she moved to Springfield to attend college. She arrived with an interest in folk music and was already playing the piano and the lap dulcimer. On a visit to Michigan to her grandmother, she became interested in the hammered dulcimer after her grandmother introduced her to an older gentleman who played one. He knew where there was an antique instrument for sale and she went and bought it. She learned to play and in 1977 had a job playing hammered dulcimer at Silver Dollar City. She did this for several years before she quit to focus on her guitar playing. Kim credits her former husband, Greg Becker, with providing her with her first real exposure to old-time music. In the late 1970s, they went to J.P. and Annadeene Fraley’s festival in Kentucky. There, Kim met the Fraley’s daughter, Danielle, and learned some songs from her. About that time, back home, Kim’s musical education was given a boost in the form of a series of old-time music concerts held at the art museum in Springfield. This series was organized by folklorist, song collector, and ballad singer, Max Hunter. It was through these concerts that Kim first met and heard Art Galbraith and Gordon McCann, Cathy Barton, and others. Kim also recalls seeing Lonnie and Thelma Robertson perform at one of these shows. She got to know Hunter and spent time visiting him and listening to some of the many field recordings he had made over the years. From these visits and the concert series, Kim got her first taste of indigenous Ozark folk music.

Meanwhile, Kim was learning to play guitar. She is self-taught and recalls listening early on to recordings of then-current recordings by the likes of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, the Putnam String County Band, and the Hollow Rock String Band. She paid particularly close attention to Jim Watson’s guitar playing, trying to absorb his bass runs. She began attending regular gatherings held by the local bluegrass society and continued playing at Silver Dollar City.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Silver Dollar was a different sort of place than it is now. Though it was, and remains, a "hillbilly" theme park, Silver Dollar City features a lot of professional, mainstream entertainment, not too much different from the type of entertainment found elsewhere in Branson. In those days, the park was more geared toward traditional music, and was known for hiring local musicians representing the local traditions that were then flourishing. Typical of the folks who played there were Bill Graves, who sang old-time country songs accompanied by his dulcimer (or "cane," as he calls it); Joe Tilden, Smokey and Joey Bartles, who did a lot of Carter Family type material; fiddlers like Art Galbraith, Lee Stoneking, and Lyman Enloe, the Horse Creek Band, whose members included Butch Gregory and Larry Sledge from Southern Illinois (and later Fred Stoneking), and a group called Umy and the Goodtimers with Kate Smith, who Kim recalls as playing country music in a style similar to groups like Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks. Later on, the park management also hired younger touring old-time musicians including the Allen Street String Band and Brad Leftwich and Linda Higginbotham. Contests were a part of the American Music Festival, held every year at Silver Dollar City, with divisions for fiddle, banjo, and guitar. About 1980, Jim showed up with his young son in tow and entered the flat-pick guitar contest. He needed someone to look after his son while he played, so he asked Kim, who he had not met before. As she watched, Kim remembers thinking, "This guy really sounds like Norman Blake." Within a couple of years Kim and Jim were playing music together, and a few years after that, in 1987, they were married.

The road that led Jim to that meeting was a long one with plenty of detours along the way. His father was from northern Louisiana, his mother from Oklahoma. Although neither of his parents played music, Jim recalls that his father enjoyed music and that his grandmother played some harmonica. The family moved to northern New Jersey where Jim spent most of his childhood. Jim got his first guitar and began playing when he was in the 6th grade. He was drawn to country music and was playing older country songs like "Wabash Cannonball" before he ever became aware of the folk boom of the ’60s. He recalls listening to radio station WBAI out of New York City, which among things, played a lot of hillbilly music. When he about 13 or 14, Jim was sent off to a military school near Lewisburg, WV. There the radio stations played nothing but country music, "the real thing," Jim recalls. The fact that the stations still broadcast daily live country music programs made an impression that stuck with him. That there was another kid at the school with a Martin guitar also impressed him. They played together some and Jim picked up some songs and guitar licks from him. A couple of years later, Jim’s family moved to Oklahoma after his father sold his business. There Jim, like most kids that age, played some rock and roll. He also got his first banjo.

Although Jim says he always dabbled with old-time music, it wasn’t until he was in his early 20s and had moved to Hawaii (where someone gave him a violin and a mandolin) that he started playing it regularly. While there, he developed an interest in Hawaiian music and also played some bluegrass. When he returned to the mainland, he continued his travels, eventually landing in Timbo, AR, near Mountain View. There he began playing music for a living, working for an agency owned by Jimmy Driftwood. The agency took local talent and booked them on school tours. Jim and his first wife and musical partner, Denise, would go out for several days at a time, doing two and three school shows a day playing fiddle tunes and singing old-time duets, accompanying themselves on guitar and mandolin or autoharp. In a Volkswagen packed with five or six instruments and their baby son, they’d head out for their destinations which often were as far west as the Texas Panhandle and northeastern New Mexico. Because the work slowed down in the winter around Mountain View, Jim went to Silver Dollar City and got a job playing in a show at a theatre two days a week for what seemed like big money then—$100 a week. To get there, he had to commute three and a half hours one way.

Not long after this, he got a job offer from a music show in Branson, beginning what Jim jokingly calls "my darkest era." The show was run by the Wilkinson Brothers. As Jim recalls, "They played modern country stuff. I went in there and they said, ‘Do you play Orange Blossom Special?’ Which I didn’t and I played it horrible. They said, ‘God, that was great! You’ve got the job.’ I thought, this is going to be easy. It was easy, but mentally, it was very difficult."

He worked there in the evenings and at Silver Dollar City during the day. Altogether, Jim worked country music shows in Branson and Eureka for the next six years, his last stint being with Shoji Tobuchi. By the mid-1980s, Jim and Kim were playing together regularly. Kim eventually got tired of the apparent novelty of the hammered dulcimer in the eyes of many tourists and gave it up, focusing, instead on her guitar playing. Indeed, those early years at Silver Dollar City and Mutton Hollow (another tourist park with a similar theme) played a profoundly important role in the development of the Lansford’s repertoire and the refinement of their craft as musicians and singers. Their musical compatibility was apparent from the start. Jim was a strong fiddler and banjo picker, and Kim loved to back up fiddle tunes on the guitar. Both had an affinity for the close harmony singing styles that were developed in the 1930s by groups like the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, and the Monroe Brothers, and in the 1940s by the Louvin Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, and others. Within these widely drawn parameters, Jim and Kim have forged a sound that is both deeply rooted in tradition and yet fresh and innovative. Along the way, they have gained reputations as first-class players, often sought after for supporting roles. Jim is constantly being recruited by bands playing at Silver Dollar City as an auxiliary member, and he also spent eight years as part of the Arkansas string band, the Skirtlifters. Kim’s skills as a back-up guitarist have become well-known to fiddlers in the area, placing her in high demand as accompanist at contests and fiddlers gatherings. Master square-dance fiddler Bob Holt of Ava, MO, in describing Kim’s playing, said, "Kim has a wonderful feel for the music . . . she is the best rhythm guitar player I’ve ever played with." Kim and Jim were hired as staff at Pinewoods Folk Music Week in 1996 and 1997. Joe Newberry, the coordinator of Folk Music Week for those years, says, "One of the reasons that I asked the Lansfords to be a part of Folk Music Week two years running is that they are utility and team players. They can do anything you ask of them, generally better than your wildest expectations." He adds, "Another thing I like about the Lansfords is that the song is the thing."

Indeed, with Kim and Jim, the song is the thing. This idea has been central in defining the Lansford’s method of learning material and their approach to music in general. They listen to lots and lots of music, choosing to perform songs that are particularly moving to them in some way. Both are drawn to what Kim calls that "primal sound" epitomized in the early country music of the Stanley Brothers, Charlie Monroe’s Kentucky Pardners, and the music of gospel performers like the Cooke Duet and James and Martha Carson. Equally important to them are the feelings expressed in the songs. Though we live in an age of so-called sophistication where the sentiments of a lot of the old-time songs are viewed as "corny" or out of step with present-day values, Jim and Kim manage to find songs which are timeless in their expression of the human condition. Kim explains, "They might seem kind of sentimental and old-fashioned, but in a lot of those songs, there’s just something very strong which applies to life now to me. I don’t think we’re really that far removed from all that. We have all the trappings of a whole different life, but those things still affect us. I choose songs that I can identify with, and I have no trouble finding old songs that move me and are very relevant to life in general, the human condition, whatever. I do my best singing when I can tune the ‘performance’ out, just close my eyes and just visualize the story the song is telling. Singing is so wonderful when that happens. Often I can get teary-eyed singing old songs like "Cowboy Jack" that I’ve sung for years . . . ."

In addition to the sounds of the early brother duets, Kim has found herself drawn to women with strong voices, citing Almeda Riddle, Molly O’Day, Hazel Dickens, Sara Carter, and Texas Gladden as some who have influenced her singing. She also has been listening to field recordings of unaccompanied singing, taking special note of vocal ornamentation. While she hasn’t consciously been working on it, she has discovered that some of this subtle ornamentation is finding its way into her singing. Another singer whose work has had a profound influence on Kim and Jim’s music is Alice Gerrard. The Lansfords have long listened to and admired Alice’s work. In the past few years, they have had several opportunities to sing and play with her on both a formal and an informal basis. About Kim and Jim, Alice says, "Besides knowing a ton of my favorite songs, they are fun and have a wonderful sense of harmony. Their style of singing, with Kim often doing the lead and Jim often on the harmony underneath, is a favorite of mine, and they’ve been doing it together for so long that they’ve really got the sound down." Getting that sound down is a process sometimes deliberate, often serendipitous, that always takes time and involves much in the way of trial and error. It is by this process that Kim and Jim are able to add new dimensions to songs that to some may be just a recorded artifact from an era long since passed and perhaps forgotten by most folks. About the process of learning songs, Kim says, "We listen to a huge spectrum of music. And so you kind of internalize that. But when we work something out, we don’t often have the tape right there, well maybe a little bit, to get a passage of a melody. We have never been slaves to playing something exactly like…(some old recording). I think what happens is we experiment with a key that’s comfortable for us vocally. We also like the sound of the instruments in particular keys. So first we mess with that, finding a key. It takes a lot of time. And you know you might have a tune where you sit down and work out a configuration in a key, and then the next time you sit down and do that, you might not like it. So you experiment again and finally we just seem to arrive at what sounds comfortable. And in the process of all that, it’s often very different. But it’s just something that happens sort of naturally."

Another component to this process is experimenting with different combinations of instruments to achieve the right sound and overall mood. Jim loves to buy, sell, and swap instruments, so there are always new ones around to try out. Kim has a 1935 Martin 0-18 and a Martin D-35. Over the past couple of years she’s come to favor the sound and feel of the smaller 0-18. Jim uses a couple of Gibson mandolins, a 1923 F-4 which he used for quite a while, and a 1995 A-5L. He’s come to appreciate the punchier sound of the A-5L and tends to use it more often these days, especially on the early bluegrass songs. On his banjos, Jim uses nylon strings. He started doing this when he was playing with the Skirtlifters who played a lot of 19th century classical banjo material and minstrel-era tunes. As often as not, these days Jim and Kim play much of their material using two guitars. Depending on the sound he’s after, Jim plays either a 1927 Martin 00-18 or a 1943 D-18. The 00-18 has a warmer, more delicate sound which Jim prefers for flat-picked guitar breaks and fills. When finger-picking he uses the bigger guitar. One of the challenges of using just two guitars is to try and achieve some depth and textural variance. Jim will try to play in a variety of keys, where he’s not used to playing, using open string positions instead of playing everything with a capo. "I’ll use open E, or sometimes F, because it seems like you come up with different ideas that way, which doesn’t always work," Jim says with a laugh. "But it makes it more interesting to me." The end result of all this is not an attempt to reconstruct the sounds of the past, but brand new interpretations of old-time music, respectful of its heritage, that will help to assure the music’s survival well into the next century. That Kim and Jim are not mere preservationists is something they make no bones about. Jim explains, "I’m not a keeper of the flame. Someone else can do that. I mean, I’m glad that some people do that. But it’s a living thing. It does change. And sometimes it doesn’t change in the direction everybody wants to hear, but it does change."

 

Kim and Jim have been pleased by the positive response to their musical endeavors. They have maintained a fairly busy performing schedule, traveling and playing when obligations like their jobs and taking care of their flock of sheep don’t interfere. Their recordings have been well-received and are receiving airplay on radio programs all over the world. They are halfway into recording a new CD, titled Call Your Dogs, which they hope to complete by the end of the summer. Also in the works is a new fiddle recording to be released by the Missouri State Old-Time Fiddlers Association. When asked about their future plans, Kim replied that there remains a vast amount of music in the old-time/early bluegrass/hillbilly/country blues vein that they are just discovering. Kim and Jim have lately also been zeroing in on Ozarks material—both songs and fiddle tunes—which they have found in various collections. At this point in time, these discoveries continue to be a constant source of inspiration for them. It sounds like we’ll be hearing from Kim and Jim Lansford for some time to come.

Jim Nelson is a regular contributor to the OTH, writing reviews and the occasional article. He has played with the Ill-Mo Boys since 1985 and currently lives in St. Louis.

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