(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There really is nothing new under the sun. Once thought to be of fairly recent vintage, Outlaws have existed throughout country music’s history. Case in point: the recent rediscovery of 1920s country Outlaw Charlie Poole.
Outside of a reverent circle of musicians in the South (mostly in bluegrass), relatively little attention has been paid to Poole in the past, mainly because there was so little of his recorded music easily available. Now, however, Columbia’s Legacy series has more than remedied that situation with the release of a new 3-CD box set. You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music contains 72 cuts and a heavily-illustrated Poole biography. It all comes spiffily packaged in a cardboard cigar box with cover art by cartoonist R. Crumb. The box set’s release on May 17 precedes the 10th annual Charlie Poole Festival in Eden, N.C., (May 20-21) and the observance in July of the 80th anniversary of his first recording session in 1925.
Poole recorded for only five short years as bandleader and singer (for his North Carolina Ramblers) and died a drunkard’s early death at age 39, but he was very popular in his time. He exerted a strong influence on what would later become bluegrass music, as well as on later musical pioneers and Outlaws such as Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and others to come. His music reflected his hard life, as would theirs. Despite a partially crippled right hand, his three-finger style of picking the five-string banjo (thumb and two fingers) preceded and influenced Earl Scruggs’ more syncopated three-finger style.
He worked in the North Carolina textile mills and made bootleg whiskey. His musical style wedded the vaudeville tradition and Tin Pan Alley with Appalachian string band music. When Poole worked in the mills in Spray, N.C., he discovered the mill owners were importing European music teachers to bring culture to the mill workers and their families, and he learned from them. While keeping his day job, Poole and his Ramblers played dances and concerts throughout the South.
He and his Ramblers (a three-piece band made up of banjo, fiddle and guitar) were invited to New York City to record for Columbia in 1925 for a fee of $75. He was signed by music scout Frank Walker, who would later sign Hank Williams to MGM Records. Their first recording, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” (with the B-side being “Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister”) sold 102,000 copies — a phenomenal number for a Southern record in 1925, making it country music’s first huge hit. Remember, this was two years before country music’s “big bang” — when the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers first recorded for the Victor label in Bristol, Va.
The Ramblers made a smart appearance, all dressed up in dapper suits and ties with highly shined dress shoes. One of the first truly animated musical performers, Poole leapt about onstage, turning cartwheels and dancing while doing handstands. He taunted audience hecklers. “I thought a damn polecat was the only thing that throwed a scent,” Poole once said to a man who tossed a penny into the Ramblers’ tip jar. He fought more than once with police officers who attempted to arrest him for playing gin mills — sometimes decking them with his banjo.
Despite his success, his career was laid low by the Great Depression, when Southerners or workers anywhere could no longer afford to buy 75-cent records or pay 25 cents for a show. Columbia released him after his last recording session in 1930, and he went back to the mills.
Poole died with a Hollywood offer and train tickets to Los Angeles sitting atop his dresser. To celebrate his invitation to go to Hollywood to make music for a film, he embarked on a weeks-long drinking spree. “Been drunk a lot of times, but this time, old Charlie’s gonna kick the bucket,” he said before he died in 1931.
Listening to these recordings today, you hear a confident, authoritative singer in control of his musical destiny, with a marvelous three-piece acoustic accompaniment lifting him on high. History teaches many wondrous lessons.