The three tunes by Eck Robertson may be the headliners of Rare and Unissued Fiddle & String Band Music, but they are by far the worst-sounding of the 27 tracks on this compilation. Issued in 2020 by Ramco Records, the album features Robertson and nine other musicians and groups recorded between 1947 and 1950 by Ramsey’s Recording Studio in Phoenix, Arizona.
Described as newly discovered, Robertson’s renditions of “Sally Goodin’,” “Texas Waggoner,” and “Lost Indian” showcase his fiddling as it was more than two decades after the sides he recorded for Victor in the 1920s. The only other examples of Robertson’s fiddling appear on the 1989 County Records release Famous Cowboy Fiddler, which included field recordings from 1963. While his playing was still electrifying on these cuts from the late 1940s, the recording quality sets a low bar for the music to follow. Despite their archival importance, Robertson’s tracks are marred by scratchiness and abrupt endings that leave much to be desired.
Thankfully, the following 24 tunes deliver the goods. You might have come for the legendary Robertson, but it’s the music by the likes of Charley Mundy’s Western Band, Carl Griswold, Clarence Fenwick, Ardell Christopher, and the rest that makes this compilation worth the price of admission. Comparatively, these tunes are clear and vibrant, presenting an exciting array of tunes and instrumentation from lesser-known musicians who were playing regionally in Texas and Arizona in the late 1940s.
The standouts on the album are the two cuts from Charley Mundy’s Western Band, “Bully of the Town” and “Spring Tail Johnny,” which are reminiscent of more wild and raucous tunes featured on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, featuring a lively mix of guitar, harmonica, banjo, piano, bass, and percussion. Other highlights include Clarence Fenwick’s “Old Man Pink Eye,” Ardell Christopher’s “Sleepy Eyed John,” and Roy Sexton and His Arizona Hoedowners’ “Nobody’s Business.”
Only one track on this album was previously issued: “Leather Britches,” by Clay Ramsey and the Old Timers, which was released in 1951 on Old Timer Records, a label that was created by Ramsey as an expansion of the radio repair business he operated with his son, Floyd Ramsey, starting in the 1940s.
The Ramseys’ operation eventually grew to become Audio Recorders in 1957, one of the most successful recording studios in Arizona. In addition to Old Timer Records, the Ramseys started several other local labels, including Liberty Bell, Rev, and MCI in the 1950s, as well as Floyd Ramsey’s own imprint, Ramco, in the 1960s. The Ramseys hit it big with Duane Eddy’s million-seller “Rebel Rouser” in 1958, and recorded other notable musicians like Waylon Jennings, Wayne Newton, and Sanford Clark on their various labels.
The CD comes packaged in a cardboard sleeve, with the front designed to look like a worn direct-to-disc record label of the era, whereas the CD itself replicates an Old Timer Records label. The inside of the sleeve features liner notes by the album’s compiler Joe Baker and producer John P. Dixon. The compilation serves as an excellent document of post-World War II old-time music from the Southwest United States, as well as Arizona’s early music recording industry.