The Ohio River Valley has proven to be fertile ground for fiddlers. Never more so has that been illustrated than with the compilation Along the Ohio’s Shores: Fiddle Music Along a Great River, released in 2020 by Field Recorders’ Collective.
The 38-track collection is a reissue of the 2005 Rounder Records release, produced by John Harrod and Mark Wilson, and was the result of the folklore work they conducted during the 1970s and ‘80s with the late Gus Meade, who died in 1991. The album comprises field recordings Harrod and Wilson made during the late 1990s and also includes recordings by Barbara Edwards Kunkle from the early 1970s.
While the CD comes in the usual minimal cardboard sleeve from FRC, the original liner notes are available free to download at the group’s website. The PDF file contains 22 pages of historical and biographical information about the tunes and performers on the compilation. It’s an excellent companion to read while listening.
As Wilson explains in a new introduction to the liner notes, he and Harrod decided to make these recordings available again to present the “distinctive folk music of northern Kentucky and southern Ohio.” He writes, “In the main, we have concentrated our attention upon the region’s fiddle music, as sampled on this disc, for that tradition has been scantily documented but has remained astonishingly vibrant through the end of the twentieth century (and beyond, for many of the musicians on these discs are actively playing today).”
Kentucky fiddling greats are well represented on this compilation, featuring the late, great Buddy Thomas on three tracks, as well as contemporary Kentucky fiddle master Roger Cooper, who learned from Thomas and also contributed to the production of the compilation. Meanwhile, the legendary Ed Haley is represented with a medley of tunes played by Ray “Curly” Parker. But most thrilling is the inclusion here of lesser-known fiddlers, like Emma Lee Dickerson, whose driving fiddling style sparkles on tunes like “Texas John,” “Susan’s Gone,” “Flannery’s Dream,” and “Little Liza Jane.” Tommy Taylor, younger brother of the renowned musician Pappy Taylor, also shines with his rendition of “Old Flannigan.”
Ohio usually doesn’t get a lot of recognition for its fiddling tradition, but the musicians from the Buckeye state included on this album make a strong case that maybe they should. While these musicians are few in number, their contributions loom large on this collection, represented by Ray Hilt, Forrest Pick, Lem Isom, and Harold Zimmerman, who had made his home in Kentucky when he was recorded, but was born in Van Wert County, in northwestern Ohio, along the Indiana border.
Hilt’s bouncy rhythm delights on “Lead Out” and “The Lazy Drag.” Pick’s smooth fiddling is especially well represented with six tunes – more than any other musician – with “Pumpkin Vine,” “Chillicothe Beauty,” and “Hog Ear” being particular standouts. Isom’s lone contribution, “Belvidere Hornpipe,” will leave you wanting more. Zimmerman’s three contributions are all knockouts, but his playing of “Kenny Roth Tune #1,” which kicks off the album, is especially strong. According to the liner notes, the tune is a version of “Old Towser,” which Zimmerman learned from a man who worked on his grandfather’s farm in Indiana.
The recordings presented on Along the Ohio’s Shores preserve a wealth of tunes from a relatively undocumented population of fiddlers. There’s not enough space in this review to do justice to all 38 tracks. Overall, the tunes are arranged well and bounce across the ears in a brisk 70 minutes. While there are certainly tunes found in other fiddling communities, the wealth of unique tunes from these Ohio River Valley musicians is well worth exploring and passing on.