What The Reviewers Say

VRCD 309 BENNY THOMASSON: THE WEISER REUNION

In 1972, Benny Thomasson, perhaps the greatest of all Texas-style fiddlers and then living in Kalama WA, met up with his son Jerry, a bear on the tenor guitar, at the National Fiddling Championships in Weiser, ID. Son Dale also brought along his 6-string. This is the product of that memorable time. Any recording of Benny is worth having, but this one has a special feel of joy and is in a relaxed setting, as he renders beautiful rags, swing standards, and traditional pieces with the countless variations, beautiful tone, and impeccable timing that won him so many trophies. Recommended. (Victory Review)

*****

BENNY AND JERRY THOMASSON: THE ULTIMATE TEXAS FIDDLE JAM by Doug Bright.The annual National Oldtime Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho is characterized by a near-palpable sense of expectation. Some come to the week-long event eager to pit their finely honed fiddling against the ultimate test of national competition. Some, like me, are drawn by the spontaneous combustion of the informal outdoor jam sessions that have become an unofficial but indispensable part of Weiser's mid-June festivities... It was at Weiser that Phil and Vivian Williams met Brooks Otis, a Californian who shared their passion for documenting great fiddle music. In June 1972, Otis managed to be on hand for one of the most significant small-group sessions of the contest year. Benny Thomasson, a key figure in the development of the Texas fiddle style during the 1930's, had come from Kalama, Washington with his son Dale, a fine Texas-style rhythm guitarist. Meanwhile, his other son Jerry, whom he hadn't seen in several years, had just arrived from Texas. Jerry had developed into an impressive tenor guitarist, so the inevitable result of this family reunion was a family jam session. Brooks Otis, for his part, was right there. "He saw the opportunity, whipped out a couple of mikes which may have been ours, and captured the session," Vivian Williams recalls.

A variety of factors make this recording a valuable and entertaining musical document. Those more familiar with bluegrass and Appalachian old-time fiddling than the Texas variety will be fascinated by Thomasson's tastefully improvisational twist on standard tunes.... Thomasson's Texas approach to the old fiddle tunes is engagingly intricate, weaving a complex web of continuous eighth notes reminiscent of Irish fiddling.

This American Celticism, however, is only half of the story behind Texas fiddling in general and Thomasson's style in particular. The other half is rooted in ragtime and the Jazz Age of the 1920's. This becomes delightfully obvious on Side Two when Thomasson takes on tunes like "Don't Let The Deal Go Down", "Kansas City Kitty", and the Kid Ory jazz classic "That's A-Plenty" - all three parts! It's on the jazzier material that Jerry Thomasson really shines. His tenor guitar, tuned a fifth below standard fiddle and mandolin tuning, complements Dale's solid guitar backup with full, rhythmically accented chords in a high register that makes his instrument sound more like a mandolin than anything else.

The rest of the key to the album's value is the nature of the recording itself. This is neither a slick studio project nor an emotionally sterile piece of contest fiddling, but a clearly recorded jam session which gives the listener a glimpse of the now-deceased master fiddler simply playing some favorite tunes with his sons and enjoying himself thoroughly. Such homespun spontaneity is, after all, the vital essence of old-time fiddling. (Heritage Music Review)

*****

In 1972, at the National Oldtime Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho, Benny and Jerry Thomasson got together to play a few tunes at the campsite. Fortunately for us, there was a microphone present. You may not have heard of this "Ben and Jerry" duo, but Benny helped to develop the "Texas" style of traditional fiddling, and his son Jerry backs him up with a jazz-tinged tenor guitar accompaniment.... The guitar work is exceptional, with chord inversions giving the tunes more life and drive than usual. This is an exceptional quality reproduction for a field recording from 20 years ago. (Dirty Linen)

*****

For those of you who do not know of Benny Thomasson, he is regarded as one of the originators of Texas style fiddle which came about in the 1920's and 1930's. Benny's grandfather and father were both fiddlers so he learned at an early age the techniques of fiddling, yet, at the age of nineteen he was hardly even noticed at a fiddle contest in Dallas where Benny himself expected to do well. As a result, he began to rephrase and rework many of the old tunes so that he "smoothed them out."

Jerry Thomasson plays the tenor guitar and backs his father very well on this album and is a much sought after back up man for many fiddlers due to his playing ability and familiarity with the music. Jerry does an excellent job on this album.

The music produced at this jam session (recorded outside the Thomasson trailer) is excellent quality. The music, no matter how old the tune may be, is given a slight swing style flavor (a la Bob Wills). If you're just learning this album is not going to help because of the complexity of licks in the tunes. If you know what you're doing on the fiddle already then this album is going to make you grin. A great album for the fiddle freak. (Walnut Valley Occasional)

*****

A marvelous modern illustration of the "pure" pre-swing Texas style. (Reviewsit)

*****

Benny is a top fiddling master of his style. (American Old Time Fiddlers News)

*****

This album will have great appeal, even to those who may not be died-in-the-wool fiddle buffs. (Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin)

*****

Benny Thomasson is widely regarded as one of the pioneers and finest practitioners of Texas, or long-bow, fiddling. Thomasson shares his music's lineage: His family emigrated from Ireland to Tennessee and thence to Texas, having acquired a reputation along the way for playing the fiddle. Thomasson is joined here by his son, Jerry, a tenor guitarist whose jazz-based "sock" style turns his four-string instrument into a formidable support system, often suggestive of a piano.

Thomasson's fiddling is smooth and relaxed and displays an inventive approach to both traditional breakdowns and rags. Most of the tunes are fiddle standards, making this collection an excellent source for new players. For those familiar with such tunes as "Cripple Creek" and "Salt River," it provides valuable lessons in the art of melodic variation and the use of the shuffle. "Draggin' the Bow" and "That's A-Plenty" (with Jerry apparently calling out the chord changes to Dale) reveal Thomasson's swingier side. On these, Jerry's tenor guitar really comes alive, providing chordal counterpoint to his father's fiddling that suggests the interplay of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Recorded in the parking lot at the 1972 Weiser, Idaho National Old-Time Fiddle Contest, these 20 clearly recorded tunes amply demonstrate that you don't need a recording studio to produce first-class music. (Sing Out)

*****

I reviewed the cassette release of this recording for the OTH in the spring 1994 issue (vol. 4, no. 3). Since nothing but the medium on which this recording is available has changed, that is, the music is exactly the same (no additional cuts), my opinion has not changed. For those who do not have that issue lying around to consult, let me recap. Benny is one of the big names in Texas fiddling, being one of the fiddlers who popularized (if not one of the progenitors of ) the style that now seems to dominate contests. He was born into a family of fiddlers near Dallas in 1909, and was in the center of the evolution or creation of the modern Texas fiddle style, which added some jazz concepts to old-time fiddling, featuring lots of variations around the chord structure. Benny retired from both his job and competitive fiddling in the early 1970s and moved to Kalama, Washington, near his son Dale. Benny remarked that when he still lived in Arlington, Texas, his son Jerry and other nearby relatives never came to visit, but once he moved, they made concerted efforts to get together. The music generated in these reunions had a particular vitality. In June, 1972, Benny and Dale traveled to Idaho to attend the National Fiddle Championships in Weiser, where they connected again with Jerry. Hours of mutually inspirational playing occurred outside of Benny's trailer. Brooks Otis recorded these sessions, which have appeared on 1973 vinyl, a 1993 cassette, and now, on CD.

One of the things that many people say about contest fiddlers is that they try to avoid losing by not making mistakes rather than trying to win by pushing the boundaries. Since this jam session is for fun and not for money or trophy, Benny takes a lot of chances, resulting in particularly spirited gems, with the envelope consistently being pushed. And despite this, fiddlistic characteristics are never deserted for violining or jazz. It is hot, very much old-time, fiddling, by any standard. Old-time warhorses, swing numbers, rags, no matter what crossed Benny's strings, he added as much feeling as he could muster. Jerry's chordal backup could be a primer in Texas-style tenor guitar backup, too, although here and there he obviously is flying by the seat of his pants and occasionally finds himself down a blind alley; but that is when Benny yells out the change, helpful to the last. This spontaneity only adds to the enjoyment and vitality. You can almost feel the pulse and taste the whiskey.

Benny died in the mid-1980's, a few years after he left Washington to return to Texas. With such a reputation as he possessed, it is a wonder that so few recordings of him are now available. But that only points up the importance of this recording. Obviously the Voyager folks, Phil and Vivian Williams, realize this and have kept it in print all along, changing as media standards have changed. This recording will definitely please fans of Texas fiddling, but it also should inspire all fans of great fiddling, regardless of style. (Kerry Blech - Old Time Herald)

*****

Benny & Jerry Thomasson: The Weiser Reunion (Voyager)

Mark O'Connor: Midnight on the Water (Sony Classical)

A casual sampling might lend the false impression that these two discs come from different worlds. Benny Thomasson was one of the most influential "Texas" fiddlers of the century, and "The Weiser Reunion" catches him and his guitarist sons Jerry and Dale jamming in the campground at the Weiser, Idaho, Old Time Fiddle Contest in 1972. The recorded sound is surprisingly immediate and the playing is technically assured, but it is the steady stream of creative and sometimes disconcerting variations Thomasson weaves through these 20 traditional tunes that illuminates why fiddlers revere his legacy.

The most prominent of those who worship at the altar of Thomasson is Mark O'Connor, who could be considered a modern-day Paganini, though violinist Cho-Liang Lin has said that she doubts the 19th Century master could play with O'Connor's rapidity. His latest is a solo recital, and though there are a few selections with guitar or mandolin, it is this 36-year-old's work with a bow that staggers the imagination. His Caprices and Improvisations may be classical in overall tone, but O'Connor's blending of classical conventions with the dancing spirit and devilish ingenuity of Texas fiddling renders his music unique and impossible to peg. (David Duckman, Chicago Tribune Sunday Arts)

*****

Listed as hot jamming by the masters of the Texas fiddle and tenor guitar. Some great fiddling here from the Weiser, Idaho June 1972 National Fiddle Contest. You fiddle fans that like items from contest fiddling - it's a great one for you. (Disc Collector)

*****

Voyager has reissued one of their premiere albums, Benny and Jerry Thomasson: The Weiser Reunion. There is a current dearth of Benny Thomasson available and it is great to have this fine recording on CD. This material was recorded at a jam session in the campground at the National Oldtime Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho in 1972. The sound on this spontaneous event is improved and more enjoyable than ever. There is a boat load of great fiddling here. Interspersed with the music, the comments between players are more distinct and you can actually hear a dog barking in the background. All the while Benny is just tearing it up! Highly recommended - this is top-shelf stuff. (Devil's Box)

*****

This is a reissue of a 1970s LP, later issued on tape in '93, of a 1972 event, where the grand master of Texas fiddlers, Benny Thomasson (then living in Kalama, WA) met up with his son Jerry, the wizard of tenor guitar backup, at the National Fiddling Championship in Weiser, ID. Another son, Dale, chipped in on the 6-string guitar. There are far too few commercial recordings of this great, influential fiddler, a problem hopefully somewhat alleviated with this reissue. Benny imparts a special joy of playing here, with family, in a relaxed atmosphere, as he attacks rags, swing standards, and older traditional tunes, adding innumerable variations with each pass. He has a full tone to his fiddling, augmented by his impeccable timing. (Victory Music Review)

*****

This is an incredible album! Recorded in the campground area of the fiddle contest in Weiser, Idaho back in 1972, "The Weiser Reunion" contains some of the hottest fiddling and accompaniment around. Benny Thomasson shows off his Texas-style fiddling on such classic fiddle tunes as "Sally Johnson," "Grey Eagle," and "Soppin' the Gravy" to name a few. Jerry Thomasson adds colorful twists to songs like "Draggin' the Bow," "That's A-Plenty," and "Cotton Patch Rag" with his tenor guitar. Throughout the session, Dale Thomasson keeps his six-string rhythm guitar going steadily and consistently, providing wonderful foundation for the music.

There are twenty tracks in all on this recording and every one is worth "hearing again for the first time." The Weiser Reunion is a must for anyone interested in old-time, Texas-style fiddling or just plain great music! (National Old Time Fiddler)

*****

The unique Texas style of fiddling has its own rich history. From early pioneers such as Eck Robertson to Western swing greats Cliff Bruner, Cecil Brower, and Joe Holley to cowboy star Hugh Farr to versatile country wiz Johnny Gimble, the Texas fiddle is rooted in the dual traditions of square-dance breakdowns and solo contests.

Benny Thomasson specializes in the contest style, and it was at the 1972 National Oldtime Fiddle Contest that these superb recordings were made - not on stage, mind you, but outside Thomasson's trailer in a Weiser, Idaho, campground. With sons Jerry (tenor guitar) and Dale (six-string) providing adept support, the senior Thomasson showcases the contest-style fiddling that he's clearly mastered. Many of the 20 songs date back to the turn of the century - hornpipes, rags, and reels from age-old British, Irish, and American traditions. Thomasson attacks old-time numbers such as "Leather Britches," "Soppin' the Gravy," "Draggin' the Bow" and "Sally Johnson" with tremendous fire, fluidity, and flair. "That's A-Plenty" brims with excitement, even though you hear him bark out the chord changes in mid-drag. Even in the relaxed, informal campground environment, Thomasson is a hands-down contest champion. (Dirty Linen)

*****

Hot Texas fiddle & tenor guitar instrumentals featuring the legendary Benny Thomasson and his son Jerry. Recorded live at the campground at the National Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho in June, 1972. (County Sales Newsletter)

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