Thornton Spencer’s fiddling chugs and sings on Things Left Behind, released by the independent label Never Met a Stranger in September 2018. These 12 tunes and two spoken tracks were recorded in May and July 2017 and turned out to be the final recordings of Spencer, who died in November of that year at age 82.
Spencer was best known as the fiddler of the Whitetop Mountain Band, which originated in the 1940s with renowned fiddler Albert Hash, Spencer’s brother-in-law. Spencer and his wife Emily joined the band in the 1970s and continued it after Hash died in 1983.
Things Left Behind represents a powerful final statement from a fiddler who helped preserve and pass on traditional music in southwestern Virginia and northwestern North Carolina. Spencer’s fiddling is strong and vibrant on these recordings, on which he is accompanied by Emily Spencer, Kilby Spencer, Deb Bramer, Kelly Breiding and Cameron DeWhitt. His bowing style alternates between propulsive sawing that drives the tune forward and long, sparkling strokes that linger within the groove.
A couple standout tracks include “Cumberland Gap,” “Lafeyette,” and “Loafer’s Dream.” Spencer’s version of “Lost John” is as beguiling a tune as I’ve ever heard, with bow strokes that seem to stretch beyond the limits of time and meter, that seem to speak and plead for ol’ John. It’s mesmerizing.
Most of the recording sounds excellent, as if Thornton and his family are playing right in your living room. However, the fidelity falls short on a few occasions, especially with the vocals on “Sugar Hill,” which sound like they’re coming from the kitchen. The singing is good, but it has an unpleasant, echoey quality.
Included with the CD ($12) is a hand-numbered, limited-edition commemorative print of Spencer. The packaging is fairly minimal, with a digipak case and the print included loosely inside. It would have been nice if the case had a sleeve to contain the print. I recommend holding on to the plastic sleeve the CD comes in to keep all the items together. Or frame the print and put it in your music room, whatever works for you. A digital version of the album is also available ($8).
Be sure to check out the video on the Never Met a Stranger website that shows the recording session for “Liberty.”
Additionally, Things Left Behind was partly recorded during a taping for DeWhitt’s Get Up in the Cool old-time music podcast. Spencer appears on Episode 43, which you can listen to at https://getupinthecool.fireside.fm/43.
Despite the occasional recording quality issues, the music on Things Left Behind is a delight. It is apparent that what was left behind after Spencer’s passing is a robust legacy that will be carried on by his family, friends, and those whose lives he touched throughout his life.