What the Reviewers Say

VRCD 345 BENNY THOMASSON: SAY OLD MAY CAN YOU PLAY THE FIDDLE

Wow! Just when I was ruing the fact that little of Mr. Thomasson's fiddling was available, our neighbors, Voyager, put out this stellar 67-minute, 32-track gem of a CD of one of the few whom you can says is a true giant in the field of American fiddling. As Pete Martin points out in the wonderful (but all too brief) notes, Benny was to fiddling what Bill Monroe was to country music, Charlie Parker to jazz. Benny was steeped in traditional fiddling, but also was an innovator who helped mold a new style, what we now call "Texas fiddling," which has come to dominate the contest circuit over the last quarter of this century and more.

Born in 1909 in Texas, Benny moved to the state of Washington upon retirement. All except six of the tracks here were recorded in Seattle. Most of them were informal recordings, none made during a contest. Though Benny showed little restraint even under the pressure of a contest, he is totally free on these tracks to create to his heart's content, though he still displays techniques and melodic lines from his traditional heritage, evoking moments of wonderful 19th century aural visions. He also plays seven pieces in cross (or, non-standard) tuning, something that is not often allowed in contests, so we catch a bit of a broader picture of what he did. Some of his signature pieces are here ("Midnight on the Water / Laughing Boy / Shucking the Bush," for example), and he pays homage to some of his favorite older players, such as Clark Kessinger and Eck Robertson, not to mention a slew of tunes he learned from his Dad and Uncle. It is a momentous release, one of great importance, in my book. Sound reproduction is excellent, a beautiful cover is provided by Brad Pinkerton, and Pete Martin and Vivian Williams collaborated on informative notes.

Go out and buy it and give yourself a real treat, one of the greatest musicians ever to live in our verdant state. (For further info on Benny on the Web, see http://www.halcyon.com/petimar/bennyhom.htm, which is Pete Martin's Benny homepage.) (Victory Review)

*****

If you ever had the good fortune to hear this legendary Texas fiddler—either in person or through his relatively few recordings—you will recognize his distinctive tone & style as soon as the first notes of this album come through the speaker. Thomasson was about 65 and no longer at his very best when these recordings were made by Phil & Vivian Williams of Voyager Records during the years Thomasson lived in the state of Washington, but on many, if not most of the 32 tunes on this album Benny's wonderful playing is little different than might have been heard 10 or 15 years earlier, and is thoroughly enjoyable for anyone who likes Texas fiddling and the repertoire of tunes that is associated with that state. Thomasson uses different tunings on some of his most effective pieces like LOST INDIAN, MIDNIGHT ON THE WATER, LAUGHING BOY and SALLY GOODIN. He is accompanied for the most part by his son Jerry and Dudley Hill on guitars on this important and welcome album of wonderful Texas fiddling. (County Sales Newsletter)

... It's even easier to recommend "Say Old Man" by the late Benny Thomasson, chief architect of Texas-style fiddling. The notes recount how Thomasson developed his style, which depends on elaborate variations of the tunes, so he would be noticed at fiddle contests. Certainly early players like Eck Robertson influenced him, and no doubt the prevalent Western Swing dance music was a factor. In turn, Thomasson influenced contest fiddlers like Herman Johnson and bluegrassers like Byron Berline, but even these great players don't quite match Benny's effortless swing. (East Bay Express)

*****

The release of material by the legendary Benny Thomasson is a cause for celebration by riddlers and fiddling enthusiasts alike. Well, it's time to start the party; Voyager Records have released another great CD of Benny's fantastic fiddling.

The recordings on this CD were made in the 1970's, when Benny lived in Washington state. They show Benny's wide range of knowledge of oldtime fiddling, including simple two part tunes as played by his dad, reels from fiddle collections such as M.M.Cole's 1000 Fiddle Tunes, Canadian and Irish tunes which he picked up from fiddlers he met in Washington, and modern Texas style breakdowns with many of his unique twists and turns. Many of the tunes are played in "cross tuning," where the fiddle strings are tuned to other than the standard GDAE tuning.

This CD is a perfect complement to Voyager's earlier Benny Thomasson release (Voyager VRCD 309 - The Weiser Reunion). You can add this CD to your collection with complete confidence that you are getting the best in fiddle music. If you are trying to decide between the two Voyager Benny Thomasson productions, save yourself a lot of mental anguish - get both! Highly Recommended. (The Devil's Box)

*****

Thomasson, who was born in Texas in 1909, but lived in Washington state when this session was recorded, became known as a pioneer of Texas style fiddling. The 32 selections on this album, his second to be released by Voyager, were recorded at several sessions during the 70's, with simple back-up. Many of the tunes are undoubtedly original, although not credited as such, and he also performs well-known nuggets, as well as a few tunes by Clark Kessinger. Some tunes are played in "cross tuning" or non-standard tunings. Thomasson won many state, national, and even world fiddling contests, and on Say Old Man... he shows himself to have a fluid, gritty style that allows for plenty of stylistic variety, including marches, rags, and waltzes. (Dirty Linen)

*****

Texas-style breakdowns recorded live between 1972 & 1978 by this legendary fiddler. If you are interested in raw, energetic Texas contest-style fiddling then this is the CD for you. (County Sales)

*****

Ever since Eck Robertson recorded "Sally Gooden" in 1922, Texas has been, recognized and the home of many great fiddlers. Major and Lewis Franklin, Norman Solomon and Bartow Riley come immediately to mind. These were players descended from the tradition established by Robertson, but no single descendant was as influential as Benny Thomasson.

Benny was born in Runnels County and raised in Gatesville, Texas. His dad and uncle were well-known local fiddlers and the family was acquainted with many of the finest, including Eck Robertson.

Contest fiddling is a big part of the Texas tradition and Benny entered his first contest at the age of 19, confident to be among the top finishers among the 200 contestants. He played his three tunes and to his surprise, no one noticed. He was disappointed with the results but vowed to work on his style until he would receive the recognition he felt he deserved. Benny states in the liner notes, "And that made me work harder, so I worked on those things for years and years." This dedication paid off handsomely as Benny would go on to win countless fiddle contests, including the Texas state fiddling contest 15 times, the World Championship in Crockett, Texas three times and the National Fiddle Championship at Weiser, Idaho. In the process, a style of fiddling known as Texas Contest Fiddling was born. A network of disciples was created, including Byron Berline, Barbara Lamb, and, of course, Mark O'Connor.

This style takes a standard tune and adds variation after variation until the fiddler's personality finally becomes apparent. Sometimes these variations make the tune unrecognizable by the final go-around, but not so the fiddler's individual style. You may not know what he's playing to the end, but you know it's Benny playing it! This remains the standard by which many fiddlers are judged in the various contests throughout the U.S.

The first 20 tunes in the generous 32-tune collection were recorded in Vivian and Phil WIlliams' living room in Seattle with the informality of friends getting together for a session. There's even the sound of a crackling fire in the fireplace and the glitches and missed chords are left in for all to hear. Benny is relaxed and obviously having a wonderful time.

The next set for four tunes was recorded in Weiser, Idaho at the 1972 fiddle contest, with Benny at his competitive best. Variation after variation of "Dusty Miller," "Shucking the Bush," "Tugboat" and "Tom and Jerry" seem to come effortlessly from Benny's fiddle. THis contest set is followed by two jam session selections, "Bonnie Kate" and "Mother's Reel." The recording is completed with a selection of tunes recorded in concert, including the classics "Midnight on the Water" and "Lime Rock."

This is a recording especially suited to fiddlers, but special notice must be given to the fine backup by Benny's son, Jerry, on the tenor guitar, and the various sock rhythm players on the six string, including Vivian Williams, David Johns and Dudley Hill. These players are no less virtuosic than Benny and they follow his every variation with a vast collection of chord inversions.

I need to emphasize the casual nature of these recordings. Nothing polished here, in fact it's very much like sitting adjacent to a wonderful jam at a festival and allowing the flow to transport you to a place beyond the simple and mundane. Sometimes you just want it to go on forever. (TC, Sing Out)

Return to CD & Cassette Catalog