Smoky Mountain banjo pioneer Carroll Best featured on new CD
Some banjo innovators are world-famous. Carroll Best just liked to play.
The music of the Haywood County, N.C., farmer and factory worker is featured on “Carroll Best and the White Oak String Band,” a new CD released by Gatlinburg’s Great Smoky Mountains Association.
Best (1931-1995) is not widely known, but he was a pioneer of the melodic, three-finger banjo technique sometimes known as the Keith style.
“It became a very popular style by the 1960s,” said East Tennessee State University’s Ted Olson. The Appalachian studies professor coproduced the CD, compiled the musical selections and wrote the liner notes.
“Scholars for years gave credit for its invention to Bill Keith, who played with Bill Monroe,” said Olson, who noted that the style is associated with banjoists like Tony Trischka, Alison Brown and Alan Munde.
“I don’t want to definitively claim he was the inventor,” Olson said. “But he was a compelling banjo player, by any definition.”
On the new CD, Best’s crisp, lively playing is heard on recordings made in the 1950s by linguist Joseph Sargent Hall. Hall, who taught at Pasadena City College, taped Best and other North Carolina musicians at three Haywood County sessions in 1956 and 1959.
“Hall was very interested in preserving the culture of the Smokies, and documenting the culture as it changed over time,” Hall said.
In the 1930s, Hall, who at the time worked for the National Park Service, began recording dozens of Smoky Mountain musicians. Some of those recordings are on “Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music,” a Grammy-nominated CD that likewise was coproduced by Olson and released by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
Hall was, Olson said, “hired by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, when it was created, to document the culture of the people who were being nudged out of their ancestral land by the creation of the park.”
When Hall returned to the Smokies in the 1950s and recorded the newly released tracks, “it was a personal trip, for his own research purposes,” Olson said.
Hall submitted many of his recordings to the Library of Congress. “He was never interested in capitalizing on these materials,” Olson said. “He didn’t want them to be released commercially, during the folk revival of that era.”
Best is the only musician who played on all three of the sessions Hall recorded. “He always claimed he was playing in the traditional style that he heard growing up in Haywood County,” Olson said. “It was a family style that he said he learned from his father.”
An opportunity to play professionally arose in the 1950s, but Best apparently didn’t care for the lifestyle. Olson quotes him in the liner notes: “I always liked playing a lot, but you had to spend your life riding in a car, and I got real tired of that.”
“Best predominantly liked to play at home,” Olson said. “He dedicated his life to experimenting with the banjo.”
On the new CD’s 37 tracks, Best is heard playing in a relaxed, living-room environment with area musicians such as fiddler S.T. Swanger and guitarist Don Brooks. A few tracks are sung, but mainly they are instrumental versions of traditional tunes like “Arkansas Traveler,” as well as a handful of songs sometimes associated with bluegrass superstars Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
On Sept. 19 at 7 p.m., the Great Smoky Mountains Association will host a CD launch party in Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska, N.C. Best’s widow Louise is expected to attend, as are musicians French Kirkpatrick and Raymond Setzer, who played on the 1950s sessions.
After Hall recorded the tracks, “they were more or less forgotten,” Olson said. Heard now, they help trace connections between traditional, old-time music and commercial bluegrass as we know it today.
“The full story of bluegrass hasn’t been told,” Olson said, “because certain musicians and styles never got the attention they deserved.”