Review of the Sidna & Fulton Myers CD (FRC504)

Sidna & Fulton Myers (FRC504)

by Kerry Blech, Old Time Herald Magazine

Fiddler James Fulton “Jimmy Natural” Myers was born about 1895 and died in 1979.  According to Blanton Owen, who recorded him in the mid-1970s, he was born near Woodlawn, Virginia, between Galax and Hillsville.  He farmed, worked for the WPA during the Great Depression, and was a mason’s helper.  He learned to play from his father, who played banjo, and from “Old Man” Mack Farmer who gave him a fiddle when he was about 8 or 10 years old.  He also went to Logan Lowe’s house in Round Peak where he would meet Ben Jarrell and Ben’s son Tommy.  Owen went on to say that Fulton played a lot of tunes associated with the Round Peak and Hillsville areas and likes to ‘anticipate notes.”  Owen’s recording of Fulton playing “Going Home,” which he learned from Logan Lowe, appeared on the Rounder LP anthology “Old Originals Volume 2.”  I have not been able to locate much biographical information about Sidna Myers, other than his basic vitals, born 1890 and died in 1972.  He too appeared on the “Old Originals” LP, as well as on “High Atmosphere” (now on a Rounder CD), and on the County Records “Clawhammer Banjo Volume Two” LP, recently reissued on CD.  His pieces on those recordings include “Twin Sisters,” “Alabama Gals,” “Sally Anne” and “Shady Grove” (the last two with Fulton on fiddle as well).  Peter Hoover recorded them in 1962 in Five Forks, VA, a place I can’t find on a map, but I surmise it might be near Woodlawn.  While I had not heard the Myers’ music directly in my early years of learning about old-time music, I was privileged to have heard Peter Hoover play “Twin Sisters” on the banjo in that time period.  The beauty and elegance of that piece moved me deeply back then, and still does.  Peter did Sidna mighty proud in his rendering of the tune.  If for no other reason, the Myers’ place in the old-time pantheon should be secure based on that tune alone.  But as we have heard, on those recordings cited above and with the present FRC CD, there was a lot more music to be heard from the Myers brothers.  Because many of us have great familiarity with other music from Surry County, NC and Grayson and Carroll Counties, VA (basically, the Galax-Mt. Airy axis), a lot of what Sidna and Fulton played will sound somewhat familiar, but they definitely have their own settings and twists to the local repertory.  They seemed to stick close to each other throughout their lives, as well, so having shared sources and bouncing their music off each other, there is a closeness, a fine-meshing, of their music, perhaps more than with other more-celebrated banjo-fiddle duets.  I must say, if there were an historic contest to judge the best pairings of these instruments, the Myers brothers would finish in the upper echelons, but I would not want to be one to pass such judgment, for any decision would be certain to cause a ruckus.

This CD kicks off with the regional favorite “Brown’s Dream,” showing their great synchronicity.  Fulton, with fiddle on chest, offers a bowing style with great rhythm and time, Sidna right there with him, with astoundingly beautiful tone, sounding like he is striking the strings in the sweet spot where the neck joins the pot.  A note on pitch here; the brothers were not constrained by a tuner of any sort, but they are fairly close to concert pitch, playing this piece near G# instead of what we understand as A-standard. Perhaps this slightly lowered pitch abets the lush and rich tone both musicians have.  Another regional favorite follows, “Breaking Up Christmas,” in which we can clearly tell that this local tradition was not mandated to have a tune contain two 16-bar phrases.  I can easily visualize them playing this for a house dance, where the music and rhythm are so contagious that no one is left sitting.  Their next number is what they called “Goin’ Home,” known by some others in the area as “Let Me Fall” and “Shine My Shoes.”  I kept waiting for Paul Sutphin to begin singing!  They seem to be a tad higher-pitched on this one, getting closer to A-440.  The next piece on the CD is “Roundtown Girls.”  On the “High Atmosphere” recording Sidna played it as a solo banjo number, calling it there “Alabama Girls,” with a slightly different second part than he plays here with brother Fulton on fiddle.  And pay attention to Fulton’s fretting the fifth string here, much in the same way that Matokie Slaughter — late of nearby Pulaski, Virginia — noted her setting of this tune; in fact, they share a some other phrasing conventions.  Tommy Jarrell often said that if someone couldn’t dance to “Old Bunch of Keys,” they “couldn’t dance to nuthin,'” and this refers to Fulton and Sidna’s playing of this tune every bit as much as to the classic Jarrell and Cockerham duets.  The next tune, “Sourwood Mountain,” is also a standard, but the high part here deviates a bit from the more common approaches to this near-universal tune, echoing strongly the way Tommy Jarrell noted it.  It sounds like Fulton re-tuned between the previous tune, which was in high-bass, high-counter (AEAE, high to low string) to standard tuning for “Cacklin’ Hen,” though the absolute pitch seems to be sharp of G-standard, not a complete full step below where they were pitched for the A tunes.  The order on this FRC CD is exactly the order in which Peter Hoover recorded them, except for some parts that have been edited out.  In this manner we are getting a feel for how they felt like playing the tunes, the order as they came to mind (or perhaps as they were requested by Peter).

At this point, Sidna and Fulton retuned again, to go into the key of D.  They start off with “Sally Ann,” a 2-part version with the fiddler playing only on the top two strings, not dipping down into the low register at all, and with no singing.  While everyone in their region of the country plays this piece, it seems that no two settings are exactly the same.  Their next tune, “Soldier’s Joy,” has a low part that sounds very much like the one Tommy Jarrell played and has a particularly beautiful banjo part.  Though the next one is listed as “Backstep Cindy,” it is announced by one of the brothers thusly, “Backstep, I call it.”  It is the same tune that Tommy Jarrell called “Old-Time Backstep Cindy” and not the later, reworked version that Tommy also played.  I had thought the common lore had it that it was called “Backstep” or “Backstep Cindy” “below the mountain” (North Carolina) and “Holliding” “above the mountain” (Virginia), but this instance belies that theorem or perhaps it is a mere anomaly to that dictum.  “Georgie” appears to be quite similar to the song usually known as “What Will We Do With the Baby-O” and sounds very, very much like the tune thatMatokie Slaughter also played as “Georgie.”  Another piece that everyone in that region seems to play, and under a variety of names, is “Stillhouse.”  Somehow, each interpreter has a unique way of delivering this melody and the Myers brothers are no exception.  While being a classic example of the regional style, it still bears their personalities on it.  The very same thing can be said of their rendition of “Arkansas Traveler,” which sounds so distinctively regional that this one could be the archetype.

Getting this far into this CD, the thought that kept recurring is that Sidna and Fulton Myers are a sheer joy to listen to.  Their exuberance for the music comes across the speakers and the intervening years with no trouble.  “Fortune,” yet another local warhorse, has a great rhythm and lyrical flow to it.  Like aural poetry.  We’ve been treated so far to relatively familiar tunes, but many from here on to the end are going to make the listener sit up an take note.  The next two tracks are the banjo-fiddle duet of “Twin Sisters,” followed by the banjo-only rendition.  This tune probably will have a familiar ring to it for most listeners because the Myers’ setting caught on like wildfire and everyone had to learn it, it seems.  But once again hearing their duet and Sidna’s solo, I feel it is akin to being one of the “Seven Wonders of the Musical World”; one of the purely and absolutely beautiful pieces of music one can ever hope to hear.  John Cohen’s notes on “High Atmosphere” state that Sidna used the gFGCD banjo tuning for this tune.  Their next number is called “Sweet Grapes.”  I’ve not heard it elsewhere and so feel that it may have been unique to the Myers family.  They follow up that one with a classic rendition of “Shady Grove,” and to give another anchor point, they seem to be just shy of A-440 on this one, in “A modal tuning.”  Another classic ensues, with “New River Train,” which sounds to me like it might be in G.  They raise their pitch a bit, again just shy of A, for “Reuben’s Train.”  The banjo playing here has a strong finger-picking character to it, but I am not sure if he is playing clawhammer or finger-style here.  The next number is listed as “Pretty Little Girl (Brown’s Dream).”  Some of the elder musicians from their area have mentioned that the older name of this melody was “Pretty Little Girl” and the newer was “Brown’s Dream,” or “John Brown’s Dream.”  I am not sure why this is identified as such here, and we many need to contact Peter Hoover to find out.  I would guess that perhaps the brothers used both titles, or perhaps have slightly different ways of playing the melody when attached to a particular title, but I don’t really hear any differences on this track in comparison with track number one.  “Sugar Baby” is the local name for the tune/song known elsewhere as “Red Rocking Chair.”  It is a tune I always associate with Enoch Rutherford, who was from Gold Hill, near Independence, VA.  Alas, we only get a teaser of Sidna’s solo banjo on this for a mere 23 seconds.  The following tune was titled “Here, Rattler” here, but sounds more like “Shoo Fly” than it does the “Rattler” song that Grandpa Jones popularized.  The Myers brothers give us only one part of what I have heard more often as a two-part melody.  They follow that up with a key change piece, and a great favorite of regional flatfoot dancers, “Jimmy Sutton,” in a very nice rendering indeed.  The final number on this recording is a lovely setting for “Sweet Sunny South,” where Sidna gets a gorgeous finger-picked sound with his drop-thumb clawhammer style.

I absolutely love how Sidna and Fulton Myers sound together.  They could be a model for anyone wanting to learn how the banjo and fiddle can fit together so seamlessly.  I am extremely pleased that this beautiful collection has been made available.  I had wanted to include more about these musicians’ lives and backgrounds, but I don’t have that information available.  I still would like to learn more, so anyone with additional information, please share it with me and the rest of us.  In the meantime, enjoy this music; it doesn’t get much better than this.