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Clarence "Tom" Ashley

Greenback Dollar – 2001 (County)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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CDs by Clarence "Tom" Ashley

Clarence "Tom" Ashley is best know by the folk and old time communities for his early 1960's work with his friend, the then-unknown Doc Watson. While a superb series of tunes, his Folkways recordings were never conclusive testament to Ashley's greatness. At last, County has put together a CD examining what many collectors have known to be Ashley's prime as a recording artist, 1929 through 1933.

Ashley's range is vast - from blues to Anglo ballads - and he was a flashy accompanist on both guitar and particularly on clawhammer banjo. His years as a blackfaced minstrel, an experience downplayed in previous collections, is very apparent here. While outwardly heinous, minstrelsy did allow for white performers to more thoroughly explore black musical styles. His blues interpretations here ("Haunted Road Blues" or "Drunk Man Blues") are stark and revelatory.

Equally fascinating are his ballads - his treatment of "House Carpenter" has proven enormously influential (just listen to Tony Rice's version and guess where he got it from), and many of these tunes ("Little Sadie," "Old John Hardy," "Short Life of Trouble," "Coo Coo Bird") have had healthy lives as bluegrass, folk or old time standards thanks to Ashley's keening, incisive performances. By rounding up performances recorded by a number of Ashley-fronted ensembles and adding extensive biographical and discographical information, County has produced an absolutely essential piece of Americana.