Archived Arts & Entertainment

Unique bluegrass musicianship

By Chris Cooper

For all practical purposes, the County bluegrass label is also the Rebel Records label. CD’s bearing the County brand are typically (though not always) early bluegrass and old-time gems that have been saved from the clutches of obscurity, such as last year’s Curly Seckler collection That Old Book Of Mine.

The Rebel imprint usually appears on newer high profile releases, but heck, this year’s Reno and Smiley re-release of 1972’s Together Again was on Rebel, so... it can get a little confusing.

Either way, the folks at Rebel/County have done their research once again, unearthing two vintage bluegrass recordings featuring Tommy Jarrell, Oscar Jenkins and Fred Cockerham and compiling the music on Down To The Cider Mill.

There’s no denying the authenticity in these performances — especially considering Jarrell and Jenkins’ pedigree in old-time music: both their fathers played this music, passing their skills on to Tommy and Oscar. As well, both were accomplished multi-instrumentalists at the time of this recording, able to switch between fiddle and banjo as needed, and each with recognizable voices on either instrument.

Cockerham’s accompaniment to Jarrell’s fiddle and vocal in “John Brown’s Dream” (on fretless 5-string banjo played in the “claw hammer” style) is a good jumping off point in recognizing each player’s individuality and sturdy technical skills. Those doubled lines are nearly mirror perfect, and hearing Jarrell saw away on his high-tuned fiddle (pitching the instrument a little higher than normal heightens the sense of urgency in these faster paced songs) gives insight to another facet of his style: his use of non-standard tunings allowed for richer chordal playing.

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But aside from all that, the bigger picture is that it’s a burning up-tempo tune, and the performances are textbook examples of exemplary old time bluegrass chops.

Compare this to the equally fast-paced “Arkansas Traveler” and you get an idea of just how well this group played off each other, and more insight to their highly idiosyncratic approaches to their instruments. Here, Cockerham is the fiddler, and his penchant for quick lines and tight bowing is immediately clear. Jenkins’ rhythmic and more mobile chord approach sets him apart from Cockerham, though both use the claw hammer technique. And he didn’t even know the album’s closer “Cider Mill” when the session occurred — he just followed along and nailed it.

A few tunes feature the fine guitar work of Shag Stanley, which helps round things out a bit, tonally. Most of the album features banjo and fiddle to propel the songs beneath Jarrell and Cockerham’s vocals, so the presence of the acoustic guitar’s timbre is welcome on cuts like “Sally Ann” and “Arkansas Traveler.”

True to the somewhat unusual nature of each player’s styles, some songs also feature two banjos wailing away against the fiddle. Think about it for a second — TWO banjos. That can be a chilling proposition in most cases, considering the especially busy nature of most banjo playing. But again, the trio makes it work, in part thanks to Cockerham’s highly syncopated rhythmic take on the instrument.

Rather than rely on rapid arpeggios, he weaves himself around the other players, accenting the off beats, sidestepping the possible train wreck that multiple banjos might’ve become in lesser hands.

Not only is Down To The Cider Mill another exceptional find from bluegrass history, it serves as a kind of education in the diverse and highly original playing styles to be found by a listener who’s willing to really dig in. Whether they meant to or not, to my ears Jarrell, Cockerham and Jenkins defied a few conventions on these sessions, and thus created quite a remarkable and varied project.

Though steeped in mountain tradition, Down To The Cider Mill manages to surprise over the course of its 15 tracks, urging you to pay attention rather than just tap your foot and zone out. Really good stuff, which is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the folks at County Records ... or Rebel Records. You know what I mean.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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