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Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band

Posted by | 07.08.2014

Found recordings said to be bluegrass music’s “missing link”

Carroll Best was "one of the greatest banjoists who ever lived." - Master banjo player Tony Trischka 

Recently recovered recordings of Haywood County, N.C., musicians made nearly 60 years ago – which an Appalachian music expert describes as “the missing link between old-time string music and bluegrass” – are once again seeing the light of day and finding a new audience thanks to Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Four years after the release of their Grammy-nominated “Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music,” GSMA producers follow up now with “Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band: Old-time Bluegrass from the Great Smoky Mountains, 1956 and 1959.” The new collection features more than 30 tracks, including such old-time favorites as “Tennessee Wagoner,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Soldier’s Joy,” as well as such modern tunes as “Banjo Boogie” and “Smoky Mountain Melody.”

It was the summer of 1956 when linguist and song catcher Joseph Hall made a second trip to the Smoky Mountains after having visited some 20 years earlier. This time he traveled to his friend Teague Williams’ house in the White Oak community of Haywood County (near the Cataloochee entrance to the park), totting a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder. Gathered in Williams’ living room that July evening was a loose confederation of musicians, most of them relatives or close friends, calling themselves, spontaneously, the White Oak String Band.

Among them was Carroll Best, age 25, who was destined to become one of the most acclaimed and influential banjo players of his generation. The other musicians Hall recorded that evening and during a follow-up visit a couple of weeks later included S.T. Swanger, Louise Best (Carroll’s wife), and Don Brooks.  When Hall returned three years later to make additional recordings at Williams’ house, the White Oak String Band included Carroll Best, Raymond Setzer, Billy Kirkpatrick and French Kirkpatrick.

“Perhaps not even Best had any inkling that the recordings made that evening would go down in music history,” said Steve Kemp, CD co-producer and GSMA’s interpretive products and services director. “Only now do we fully understand that Hall’s reel-to-reel was capturing the earliest recorded performance, by anyone, of a particular style of banjoing: melodic three-finger style, sometimes called ‘fiddle style.’”

In a 1992 interview, Best described the genesis of his unique playing style this way: “[Haywood County was] full of fiddle players… so I just pursued the fiddle type banjo.”

Within the surprisingly large world of old-time and bluegrass music aficionados, debate has raged for years about who was the first to play fiddle-style banjo. Noted banjo players Bobby Thompson and Bill Keith might have picked up the technique in the late 1950s, but Hall’s fortuitous recording, made just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, provides strong evidence that Best was the first.

Best grew up working on his family’s 125-acre mountain farm and began playing banjo at age 5. He never put down the banjo for long until he was tragically murdered in 1995. He played in a number of local country and bluegrass bands including the Morris Brothers, the Carolina Pals, the Hornpipers, and the Carroll Best Band and was the recipient of such honors as the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, the Lunsford Award, and participation in the Masters of the Banjo Tour and the Tennessee Banjo Institute. He even performed on the “Grand Ole Opry” and “Hee Haw.”

Recordings made during Hall’s first trip to the Smokies in 1939 were released by GSMA in 2010. “Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music,” a collection of 34 recordings of various amateur musicians, has since received widespread distribution and acclaim, including a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album in 2013.

One of the co-producers on the first and second CD, Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies and American Folk Music instructor at East Tennessee State University, recently returned to the Archives of Appalachia in search of other musical gems hidden among Hall’s trove of documents, linguistics materials, and musical field recordings. After nearly a year of listening, Olson struck pay dirt.

“So well went the first 1956 session that Hall returned again in 1956.  He then returned in 1959, and Williams put together an even larger array of outstanding local professionals, including French and Billy Kirkpatrick and Raymond Setzer,” said Olson. Their collaboration produced outstanding takes of string band classics including “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Home Sweet Home,” “Cripple Creek,” “Old Joe Clark” and “Black Mountain Rag.”

According to Olson, these recordings represent “the missing link between old-time string music and bluegrass, two music genres…whose connections are not widely understood.”

“Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band” includes 37 songs and a 64-page booklet with photographs of the musicians, as well as extensive notes detailing their histories, their styles and the songs they played. It is now available for $14.95 at all park visitor centers, in local music stores, or by contacting or 1-888-898-9102 x226.

GSMA to host CD launch event Sept. 19

Designed to serve as the official reintroduction of this music to the community that created the musicians, Great Smoky Mountains Association will host a CD launch event Friday, Sept. 19, in Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska, N.C.

Those anticipated to be in attendance at the event include French Kirkpatrick and Raymond Setzer, both of whom still reside in Haywood County; Carroll Best’s widow, Louise; as well as several Haywood County-area musicians inspired by Carroll Best, including French Kirkpatrick’s band, The Unexpected, The Trantham Family, Rob and Anne Lough, the Randleman Brothers, and Laura Boosinger and Josh Goforth. Olson, an accomplished banjo player in his own right, will serve as event emcee. CDs will be available for sale during the event, which the public is invited to attend free of charge.

What the media is saying...

Smoky Mountain News

The Mountaineer and HERE

Live at Five at Four

"Inside Appalachia" (starting at 13:13 minutes into the show)

The Banjo Newsletter

The Old-time Herald

Bluegrass Unlimited

The State of Things

Bluegrass Today

Tagged: GSMA News,

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