Raleigh's Old Hat Records is headquartered in a refurbished blacksmith shop that dates back to the 1920s, an ideal spot for the musical rescue and restoration work from that era that label founder Marshall Wyatt performs.
Wyatt, working with Charlottesville-based sound engineer/wizard Christopher King, is currently in the middle of three projects, all of which focus on his home state: In the Pines will present artists from across North Carolina from the prewar era, Gastonia Gallup will feature hillbilly blues and cotton mill songs from Gaston County, and Crazy Barn Dance will showcase the string bands that played on N.C. radio in the '30s.
What separates Old Hat from other reissue houses is Wyatt's storyteller touch, leading to releases that mix entertainment and education in the perfect measure and that never feel slapdash. His liner notes for Old Hat albums combine a scholar's persistence and a fan's enthusiasm: Detailed bibliographic information lives alongside fly-on-the-wall depictions of long-ago recording sessions and tales of snake-chomping geeks. The results are never less than a joyride of a read, just as the music framed by the words is a traveling carnival for the ears.
The Recording Academy recognized Old Hat's double-threat excellence this year by nominating the label's Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937 for two Grammy awards: Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes. (The winners in the categories were Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1891-1922 and the Fats Waller retrospective If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!, respectively.)
The Independent asked Wyatt a few questions just before he flew west for the big Grammy show.
Independent Weekly: What inspired your interest in the world of vintage music, and what prepared you for the research that is such a big part of what you do?
Marshall Wyatt: I've been a collector for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I had a strong example set by my father, who was the family archivist and a lifelong collector. He had a real passion for baseball and always had closets full of memorabilia. He also chronicled the game with hundreds of scrapbooks and illustrated them with his own drawings. Later in life, he became an authority on Western movies of the silent era, and he did a lot of original research and writing in that area. So, for me, collecting has always been about more than just accumulating stuff. It has to do with presenting the material within a thoughtful framework, and hopefully an artistic framework as well.
My musical interests were pretty mainstream until I reached my late teens. When I was 6 years old, I heard "Short Fat Fannie" by Larry Williams and His Orchestra. That record caused a sensation around my neighborhood. It was my first exposure to rock 'n' roll. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis also made a big impression, and then my teen years coincided with The Beatles and the British invasion.
But eventually I got hold of a Folkways album that had tracks by Lonnie Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Tommy McClennan and other blues singers from the '20s and '30s, and suddenly it was a whole new ball game. That started me rummaging through 78s at local flea markets and thrift stores. I'll never forget finding a copy of "Beaver Slide Rag" by Peg Leg Howell & His Gang on Columbia. It's a wild country dance played by a black fiddle band. When I got home and played that, I was hooked.
Without giving away any trade secrets, how do you find the music and the comprehensive information about it?
Even the most obscure music is out there, in the hands of collectors. And believe me, these guys are fanatical. Fortunately, I've been able to establish working relationships with a network of 78s collectors who are willing to loan their rare records for a worthy cause. These collectors have been trading records and tapes and sharing this music for a long time, and now the ripple effect is spreading it to a larger audience.
The musical history is gleaned from logical sources, including libraries, university and government archives, newspapers and periodicals. The Internet has opened up a lot of research possibilities. I've also accessed lots of obscure information from the liner notes of old LP anthologies, and I have shelves full of those. But I think the most rewarding research comes from first-person interviews with people directly involved in the music. Information coming straight from the source has a vitality that's hard to beat. Unfortunately, most of the musicians from the prewar era are now gone, so these days I increasingly converse with their children or grandchildren.
With the exception of Violin, Sing the Blues for Me, all the Old Hat releases cover 1926-1937, or a subset thereof. Is there something notable or ground-breaking about that period?
Yes, I think that's a unique period in the history of recorded music, especially American vernacular music. For one thing, wide use of the newly invented electric condenser microphone began in 1926, and that brought dynamic improvement to the sound quality of recordings. Also, the mid-1920s saw the rise of "race" and "hillbilly" records. In other words, the recording industry finally discovered that rural and working-class whites and African Americans would enthusiastically buy recordings of their own music. This stimulated an incredible influx of talent into the recording studios, a burst of creativity that has seldom been matched.
The collision of backwoods culture with modern technology created some of the most compelling and beautiful and idiosyncratic music ever recorded. But it couldn't last. The rise of radio helped homogenize musical trends, and better roads and transportation obliterated the isolated pockets of eccentricity. And once the Great Depression had crippled the recording industry, the big companies would never again take such chances. After that they wanted to promote the popular favorite, the smooth professional, the sure bet. You had to get slick or pack it up and go home.
When you document the music of an era and/or region, you're also documenting the culture to some degree. With a release like Good for What Ails You, some of the language and beliefs embedded in the music and the performances can ring ugly from a 2007 perspective. Does this ever give you pause?
Of course you're referring to the racist overtones that pervaded so much popular music of that era. And yes, I gave considerable thought to that aspect of the music as I was formulating the album. It's a fact that the dominant form of American popular entertainment for the better part of a century was blackface minstrelsy. This is no mere footnote, but a substantial chunk of our cultural history, and it deserves to be examined and discussed. The response to Good for What Ails You has been very positive. I think that a 2007 perspective can distinguish between a work that promotes racism and a work that critiques racism as part of the historical continuum.
I think people find this music surprisingly fresh and highly entertaining. I tried to pick performances with artistic merit to put on the album, and there was plenty to choose from, by black and white musicians alike. And I think their artistic accomplishments transcend the oppressive institutions, such as minstrelsy, that they had to work under.
What are the common threads in the five CDs released thus far by Old Hat?
I suppose the common thread goes back to telling a story. The music, the words and the images on a particular album are crafted in a way that will tell a cohesive story, at least I hope so. Music from the Lost Provinces tells the story of a particular geographical region. Violin, Sing the Blues for Me tells the story of African-American fiddlers. Good for What Ails You describes the intersection of advertising, entertainment and medicine. And so on. I also want to showcase music that engages and entertains and avoid a dry, academic approach.
Music from the Lost Provinces: Old-Time Stringbands from Ashe County, North Carolina & Vicinity, 1927-1931 
Among the 22 cuts on this first Old Hat release are five from one of Wyatt's favorites, Frank Blevins, and his band the Tar Heel Rattlers: "[He has a] heartfelt, soulful delivery that never fails to move me."
Violin, Sing the Blues for Me: African-American Fiddlers 1926-1949 
Where Wyatt found a home for "Beaver Slide Rag," the record that sent him down the vintage path. The title's an exhortation from blues guitar great Lonnie Johnson from his early fiddling days.
Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow!: Vintage Fiddle Music 1927-1935 
You'll learn the differences among blues, jazz, stomps, shuffles and rags, but it's too much fun to feel like education. As on Violin, among the bands featured is the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, whose name and spirit lives on in a Triangle trio.
Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard's Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s 1926-1937 
The sub-subtitle is 24 Rare Gems from the King of Record Collectors, and these jewels represent stringband, blues, jazz, country, Cajun and gospel. According to Wyatt, "Joe Bussard is one of a small group of record collectors who've helped preserve America's musical heritage."
Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937 
In a world where seemingly every form of entertainment is at your fingertips, it's hard to imagine a time when you had to wait for the entertainment to roll into your town: Old Weird (and often Wonderful) America on wheels. This two-disc set does the conjuring for you.