by Rick Cornell
Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers weren’t the only musicians in the Tar Heel State to put their stamp on handed-down ballads and to create their own misty mountain hops in the hardscrabble late 1920s and early 1930s. That said, it’s hard not to cite the music made by Poole and his two cohorts—a banjo, fiddle, and guitar chasing Poole’s “vinegary bark” (borrowing a lively phrase from roots music scholar/deejay/musician Kinney Rorrer, grandnephew of Rambler fiddler Posey Rorer) around a single microphone—as the inspiration for the proto-country sounds that immediately followed.
That was the premise of the three-disc “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me”: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music, released by Sony/ Legacy in 2005. That compilation made its point by including, in addition to a generous helping from Poole’s catalog, turn-of-the-century recordings of songs later interpreted by Poole and sides cut by groups that followed in the Ramblers’ wake. One outfit in that latter group was the Red Fox Chasers, whose 1928 recording of “May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister?” was included on “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me” alongside Poole’s version, itself a sizable hit three years earlier.
On Tuesday, the New York City-based Tompkins Square label (James Blackshaw, Charlie Louvin, the great box set People Take Warning!) will release I’m Going Down to North Carolina: The Complete Recordings of the Red Fox Chasers (1928-1931), the first complete anthology of the work of this quartet out of various points in northwestern North Carolina. The two-disc set balances well-traveled ballads and minstrel tunes with interpretations of popular Tin Pan Alley fare and versions of songs composed by string band contemporaries, including a few that, while perhaps not penned by Poole, were definitely personalized by him. There’s even a song about bootlegging that borrowed its melody from the gospel number “The River of Jordan.” “May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister?” makes an appearance, of course. But as Kinney Rorrer explains—his essay leads off the I’m Going Down to North Carolina liner notes just as his forward opened the door on “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me”—the Chasers’ version, complete with additional verses, is based on a source other than Poole.