Voyager Recordings & Publications

VRCD 362 Carthy Sisco: Rugged Road

85 year old Arkansan Carthy Sisco has been living up here in the wet corner since his tour of duty with the CCC ended around 1940. As a boy he listened to fiddle tunes on a neighbor's crank Victrola, and caught Barn Dances on battery powered radios. He tried to play the banjo, but he couldn't get the hang of the three finger picking style some guys in the area used ("Way before Earl," he sniffs) so took up the fiddle instead. This made him popular at local square dances and in camp. Now he's one of the elder statesmen of Washington fiddle music, a link to the past but spry and active today, still learning new tunes and burnishing the old ones. Phil Williams had Sisco wax the repertoire in 2002, and now Voyager has released these 28 tracks on a fine CD. There are a few obscurities from his Arkansas days, but as the excellent liner notes tell, most of Sisco's early years were spent playing the most common dance pieces, not worthy of inclusion on a CD today. Most of the album, then, is music Sisco picked up during his adult years from contemporaries like Kenny Baker, either in person or from records. Sisco can't say for sure where he got several of the tunes (he learned "New Five Cents" from "someone fiddling on television") but he knows a good'un when he hears it, and this record crackles with energy. Sisco has a dry, but not scraping or screechy, sound, and on this effort Jim Ketterman provides some gentle guitar accompaniment, and Jeanie Murphy some restrained clawhammer banjo, to round things out. Good stuff! (Tom Petersen, Victory Review)

*****

Carthy Sisco is an old-time fiddler born in 1921 and raised in Carroll County, and isolated northwest corner of Arkansas. Like many children of this period, he picked up much of his music primarily from his family and neighbors, and later from the few records his family could afford to buy for their crank phonograph. As a teenager, he worked for the CCC in southwestern Arkansas during the 1930s, where he was exposed to a wider range of musicians, and he heard the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. The title of this first feature album Rugged Road, might well be an apt metaphor for the process that ultimately brought Carthy to Rosedale, Washington, where he lives today.

The extensive liner notes for the CD give a good history of the path that led to the recording. In Sisco's case, a long hiatus from fiddling to attend to the duties of earning a living and raising a family seems to have created a musical break with his past. Stylistically, Carthy's playing shows as much influence of more recent fiddlers as it does the regional style where he grew up. In an interesting evolutionary twist, more that a third of the 28 selections on this CD come from bluegrass sources. He, however, returns them to an old-time style via a process his friends refer to as "Carthy-izing." Indeed, his favorite fiddler, a frequent source of tunes, is Kenny Baker. - the liner notes confirm that quite a few selections come from Baker's recordings as well as from those of Bill Monroe and Byron Berline.

It is always interesting to have a chance to hear the interpretation of the music from one of the old-timers, with a direct link to a time and place where the aural tradition was virtually the only way to learn music. And, in this case, it's a treat to have a modern recording of a fiddler who, though in his 80s, is still very capable of playing with finesse and style. The recording is very clear with an "in-your-living-room" presence that makes you feel the group is playing just for you. Sisco's fiddle is backed by banjo and guitar on every selection. Jeanie Murphy contributes a nicely rhythmic clawhammer banjo on most tunes, and Jim Ketterman adds a very consistent backup guitar. While it's clear that the backup musicians are quite competent, and their playing solid and appropriate, it's equally clear that their main mission is to serve as a non-distracting setting for the fiddle. The balance generally favors the fiddle in the mix, with some interesting exceptions such as the title cut "Rugged Road," which features more drive from the banjo, and the "F & D Rag" on which a nicely loping banjo complements the fiddle. The concluding instrumental interpretations of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" uses some tasteful three-finger banjo for a bit of variation.

All of the tracks are instrumental. The group gets off to a lively start with the "Acorn Hill Breakdown," on of my favorites in this collection. Others which have the potential to become jam favorites include "Blue Ridge Breakdown," "Peter Went a-Fishing," and "Chuckaluck." The more familiar tunes are a version of "New FIve cents," the aforementioned F & D," and "The Old Grey Mare" who "came tearing out of the wilderness." I found it interesting that only about 10 of the selections were familiar names, and that even some of these were different variants, and not familiar tunes. One example is "Texas Quickstep" which is usually another name for "Rachel," though here it is an interestingly different tune, credited to one of the fiddler's teenage influences, Delton Hitson. Another Sisco variant is a version of "Sally Ann," which is reminiscent of "Sail Away Ladies."

Judging by the familiar tunes, Sisco uses a simple straight-ahead approach with a minimum of ornamentation and double stops. It's hard to detect any regional influence in his bowing style or rhythmic approach, though it makes it easy to learn the tunes. The liner notes offer no information on fiddle tunings, so it's probably a fair to assume that he uses the standard tuning exclusively.

Now a member of the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association, Carthy Sisco has been quite active on the west coast concert and festival circuit. He has performed at a long list of events headlined by appearances at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend and the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, Washington. Still actively learning tunes and generous with his time, Sisco has been a source of inspiration and mentoring for many younger musicians, always providing encouragement and sharing tunes with newcomers.

I would recommend this CD to those who enjoy hearing the older, original musicians, and who seek sources of interesting, less commonly-heard tunes or variations on some of the standards. Others who will be interested in this recording are those who have enjoyed hearing Carthy live and would like to relive the performances of a fine old fiddler. (Jim Stanko, The Old-Time Herald)

*****

Average but pleasant old-time fiddling by Sisco, who was born in Arkansas in 1921 but then moved to the Northwest—he is one of a number of old-time fiddlers discovered and recorded by Phil and Vivian Williams on their long-established Voyager label out of Seattle. There are 28 tunes on this album, on which Sisco is accompanied by a banjo and guitar. The tunes include several Kenny Baker numbers—Baker is a favorite of Sisco's. (County Sales Newsletter)

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