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V/A - Flowers in the Wildwood: Women in Early Country Music 1923-1939

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Artist: V/A

Album: Flowers in the Wildwood: Women in Early Country Music 1923-1939

Label: Trikont

Review date: Jul. 31, 2003

Flowers from the Past Still Blooming

Since the first commercial recordings of white, rural vernacular music from the American south in the 1920s, a rich and fertile loam has brought forth the roots and branches of the styles that have come to be called Hillbilly, Bluegrass, Western, Country, Honky-tonk. The thing is, all those disparate sounds were there almost from the beginning, in a mountain-born music that was strong on storytelling, Celtic-derived melody, and the hotter rhythms of blues and early jazz.

This was music often deeply rooted in tales of history, legend, home, and the land, so it made sense that women’s voices were heard early on. The Carter Family’s Sarah and Maybelle, with their border radio shows beamed across North America in all directions, were only the most famous of the many female artists who helped the music spread from the Southeast to the western states to, eventually, the entire nation. As much of the country changed from rural to urban and suburban, the music changed, too, absorbing influences while keeping its rural accent, its fiddle-tune and mountain ballad orientation.

Looking back from an early 21st century perspective, it’s easy to forget that, even though it grew from traditional folkways, this music was indeed commercial: the line from the Carters and other, lesser known female singers and groups in the ’20s and ’30s leads through Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn to current sounds as diverse as those of the slick and mainstream Dixie Chicks, the consciously literate and depression-era hillbilly-steeped poetics of Gillian Welch.

Flowers in the Wildwood is a valuable collection, well-selected and well-presented, rich in source recordings that show the diversity of voices and approaches extant in the early era. The riches are stunning: among them, hot and sassy prairie swing from cowgirl yodeler Patsy Montana; the smooth, jazzy and Tin Pan Alley harmonies of The Girls of The Golden West; deep Appalachian balladry from the likes of the Leatherman Sisters; string band breakdowns from the Coon Creek Girls and Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis; the Carter Family, of course. This was a time before commercial country music found and replicated formulas for success; thus, the pieces here make for an exhilarating display of strong individual voices and unique stylistic approaches.

The re-mastering is excellent: clean, without sacrificing that luscious, thick midrange inherent in so many old recordings. The liner notes, including a graceful and articulate essay by Handsome Family member Rennie Sparks, and an overview by country music historian Bill C. Malone, are insightful and informative. (Malone’s ground-breaking 1968 text, Country Music USA, is still perhaps the most balanced, sane, and comprehensive ethnography of American country music to appear to date.)

Theories of “Roots” have been constantly re-invented, of course, from generation to generation; folk revivalism and bluegrass traditionalism in the 1950s and ’60s were followed by the cosmic cowboy and outlaw styles of the 1970s; a decade and a half later came Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic, alt-country, and the re-discovery of Harry Smith’s arcane investigations and brilliant anthologies. A disc as well-imagined and manifested as Flowers in the Wildwood posits no particular theories; but by offering a wide variety of music, along with fine documentation, it becomes a fascinating and very welcome addition to the library.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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