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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

ETSU's Olson discovers bluegrass music's "missing link'

"Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band" CD cover.

August 11, 2014

JOHNSON CITY, TN — Dr. Ted Olson, an East Tennessee State University faculty member in the department of Appalachian studies, has spent many hours searching the university's Archives of Appalachia for musical gems. After a year, he made quite a find.

According to Olson, the recordings he discovered, made in Haywood County, N.C., by folklorist and linguist Joseph S. Hall in the 1950s, represent "the missing link between old-time string music and bluegrass, two music genres . . . whose connections are not widely understood."

These recordings, featuring music performances by five-string banjo master Carroll Best and some of his friends, document that Best was a pioneer of the melodic, three-finger banjo style. Used today by numerous banjo players, including Bill Keith, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, the melodic style allows the banjo player to play more notes than the more widely known "Scruggs-style" bluegrass banjo.

A new CD, "Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band: Old-time Bluegrass from the Great Smoky Mountains, 1956 and 1959," is a collection of informal jam sessions that occurred during Hall's second and third forays into the Smokies.

In 1956, Hall recorded such local musicians as Best, destined to become one of the most significant banjo players of his generation, along with his wife, Louise Best, S.T. Swanger and Don Brooks, while in 1959, he recorded Best, Raymond Setzer, Billy Kirkpatrick and French Kirkpatrick in 1959.

Hall tagged both of these ensembles The White Oak String Band.

Released by the non-profit Great Smoky Mountains Association, the CD contains a 64-page booklet written by Olson, and includes 37 songs. Among them are old favorites "Tennessee Wagoner," "Arkansas Traveler," "Old Joe Clark," "Soldier's Joy," and newer material like "Banjo Boogie" and "Smoky Mountain Melody."

Proceeds from sales of the CD will be donated to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

To reintroduce the music to the community that created the musicians, GSMA will host a CD launch event Friday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. in Stuart Auditorium at Lake Janaluska, N.C.

Expected to be in attendance are French Kirkpatrick and Raymond Setzer, Best's widow Louise, and several local and regional musicians inspired by Best.

John Fleenor of the Archives of Appalachia served as sound engineer for this new release.

In 2013, both Olson and Fleenor earned a Grammy nomination in the "Best Historical Album" category for their work on "Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music," a release of music recordings collected in 1939 by Joseph Hall in 1939 before residents of the Smokies were relocated to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Olson also received two Grammy nominations in 2012 for his work on a box set titled, "The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928: The Big Bang of Country Music."

For details about the CD, visit the GSMA website at