In the Pines: Tar Heel Folk Songs & Fiddle Tunes, which collects songs from the ’20s and ’30s, also shows Southerners wrestling with a fading Dixie as well as with encroaching industrialization into the rural South. You can hear it in a jaunty fiddle intro to Frank Jenkins’ Pilot Mountaineers’ “Sunny Home in Dixie,” which evokes the comforting sound of a front porch hoedown from earlier, simpler times. The North Carolinian strain of bluegrass and country that the CD documents was marked by a strong emphasis on string instruments—fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, most often—and an obvious indebtedness to the Scottish and Irish folk songs that so many of the state’s residents had brought with them.
The songs on In the Pines were recorded between 1926 and 1936. That starting point is significant: By then, many acres of North Carolina pines had been cut down to provide wood and tar for building materials, textiles, and furniture. The boom helped create a market for 78 rpm records and for local musicians to record them: Record companies sought out North Carolina musicians who had previously only played in bars and general stores in isolated areas. The golden age only lasted a decade, before the Great Depression’s effects forced most of those companies into bankruptcy.
Even the good days had issues: The songs on In the Pines present North Carolina as a place desperately clinging to its regional identity in the face of homogenization, urbanization, and growing New Deal nationalism. To that end, the disc’s most compelling songs boast the strongest, most distinct North Carolina connection. G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter’s 1929 version of “Tom Dooley” is the first recording of the song that was later famously covered by the Kingston Trio, parodied by the Smothers Brothers, and used as the source for a late-’50s Michael Landon western. The song is a straightforward bluegrass morality tale about a hunted man from Wiles County, N.C., who was hanged and buried in a pine box; stripped of its cultural baggage, its harrowing qualities shine through, bolstered by the fact (revealed in the liner notes) that Grayson’s uncle was instrumental in the capture of Thomas C. Dula, the real-life fugitive who inspired the song. Another murder ballad, “Otto Wood,” tells the story of another Wiles County native who lost his left hand at 17 and later, in the words of liner-note writer Marshall Wyatt, spent a decade in a “ceaseless blur of stolen cars, illegal whiskey, gambling, shooting scrapes, and jail breaks.”
At least seven of the bands on In The Pines are family bands; most worked in the fields in the daytime and played music together at night. One of the best examples from such a group, 1931’s “The Rose With a Broken Stem,” by Clay Everhart & the North Carolina Cooper Boys, is fascinating because the Piedmont string sound is pure Tarheel, but the tune itself seems to be a product of Tin Pan Alley. The theme of lost innocence and faded glory seem well suited to a group struggling to maintain a regional culture even as a new world began to intrude from over the Blue Ridge Mountains.