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What the Reviewers Say

Pete McMahan: 50 Fiddle Gems
VRCD 366

For a lot of folks, Pete McMahan is the first name that comes to mind when they think of Missouri fiddling. Listen to this CD set and you'll understand why. Pete (1918 - 2000) was a mainstay of the contest scene in Missouri and elsewhere. Both as a contestant and a judge, and along with Cleo Persinger, Taylor McBaine, Jake Hockemeyer, and several others, Pete was a principle proponent of the Little Dixie style of fiddling prevalent in central Missouri. He was equally at home playing for dances and contests, and could alter his style to match the situation.

He began playing as a small child, honing his skills playing for square dances, and gradually working up to contests. Like most fiddlers of his era, Pete listened keenly to the radio fiddlers of the time, such as Arthur Smith and Howdy Forrester. In his late teens he moved to Columbia, Missouri, and fell under the influence of a number of central Missouri fiddlers whose repertoires included more complex hornpipes and reels, often played in F or B-flat. After WWII, Pete found himself playing in a dance band that played all kinds of music then popular, from country songs to big band and swing tunes. This experience no doubt added to his musical versatility and reinforced his ability to play material in the flat keys.

Pete got married in the early 1950s, started a family and moved to Arizona, where he worked as a carpenter and all but quit playing the fiddle. He moved back to Columbia, Missouri in the mid-1960s and began playing again, this time with a vengeance. At the time, fiddlers associations were cropping up all over, and along with them, numerous fiddle contests. Pete jumped right into this milieu, placing fourth at Weiser in 1968, and winning several major competitions in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, South Dakota, and nearly every contest in which he competed in Missouri. As was common in the 1970s, Pete recorded four privately issued LPs which he sold at contests and fiddlers conventions. Those records have been reissued in their entirety on this two-CD set, 50 Old-Time Fiddle Gems. The title pretty much sums it up. Gems, indeed.

The 50 tunes contained in this set provide an excellent cross section of Pete's repertoire and range of playing styles. Pete described his own contest playing as "semi-progressive" as opposed to "progressive" fiddling, a terms he used to describe modern contest fiddling. It's important to note, however, that he once said, "You're not playing the fiddle unless you want to make people dance." It is precisely these two seemingly conflicting concepts which have merged to define Pete's approach to fiddling. When playing for a contest, Pete had real knack for taking a tune and adding his own twists and variations without ever losing the essence of the melody or sacrificing its drive. On the other side of the coin, when called up, he was a top-notch square dance fiddler.

Among the 50 tunes contained in this collection are some more commonly played hoedowns, including such tried and true favorites as "Grey Eagle," "Leather Britches," "Tom and Jerry," "Rachel," "Bill Cheatem," "Eighth of January," "Katy Hill," "Dance Around Molly," and "Salt River." These may be commonly played tunes, but in Pete's hands, they became a lot more than just another tune. His take on "Sugar in the Gourd" is, in my opinion, simply the best version I've heard, anywhere. In amongst the more commonly known titles are some outstanding tunes which seem to be indigenous to central Missouri, including "Kansas City Rag," "Adrian's Reel" (not to be confused with "Adrian's Hornpipe"), which Pete got from Lonnie Robertson, "Morris Hornpipe" (in C), a hoedown he learned from George Morris who played with a string band on a live radio show in the late 1940s, "Bradley's Hoedown" (in B-flat), from Callaway County fiddler, Seth Bradley, "Talk to Dinah," a tune common in Howard County, and "Echoes of the Ozarks," which he learned from Lee Stoneking of Clinton, Missouri. The latter tune, also in B-flat, is usually played in G (Fiddlin' Sam Long) or D (Stoneking), and is a fine example of Pete's re-working a tune into B-flat, perhaps simply because he can.

Also included are a couple of find pieces which originate with Pete himself - "Reuben's Ridge," a hoedown in the "Katy Hill"/"Sally Johnson" family, and "Sarah's Reel," which is named for his wife. Waltzes make up about a quarter of the material here, not surprising since a well-played waltz can make all the difference when deciding the outcome of a close contest. Pete plays them all masterfully, utilizing lots of precise double stops. In the process he manages to wring every possible bit out of the tune without succumbing to outright schmaltziness.

I think a word is in order about the accompaniment heard throughout, especially on the first dozen or so tracks on each CD (originally released as Missouri Fiddlin' and Missouri Fiddlin' No 3, respectively). On these pieces, Fred Stoneking plays the guitar back up, and shows how it's done. Period. His playing is to the point, and complements the fiddle; is unobtrusive, but always right there. On the waltzes, he knows what chords to play, and on the hoedowns, he, for the most part, sticks closely to what R. P. Christenson termed "the old-time accompaniment pattern." I-V. I-IV-V. Repeat as often as necessary. On the tracks which originally comprised No. 3, Jack Deck, who plays banjo in a unique, non-Scruggs, three-finger style, joins Pete and Fred. The result of this combination is a very distinctive string band sound. Joe Stevens of Montgomery City plays guitar on tracks 13 - 24 of CE 1 (Missouri Fiddlin' No. 2) and does an admirable job. His playing is right on the money throughout. Charlie Brattin (guitar) and Pete Brattin (bass) provide the accompaniment on tracks 15 - 26 of CD 2 (Missouri Fiddlin' No. 4). While these guys know their stuff, I found their playing to be somewhat distracting at times. They played constantly moving bass lines, and the bass itself seems to be a little too hot in the overall mix. However, this should not in any way deter people from giving this material a listen.

Accompanying these CDs is a 20-page booklet, written by the producer, folklorist and Missouri fiddler, Howard Marshall. The booklet includes a lengthy biography of Pete, a discussion of Little Dixie, or central Missouri-style fiddling, the importance of guitar accompaniment, and detailed notes on each of the tunes, and is illustrated throughout with photographs of Pete and the various musicians he played with over his lifetime. Many thanks as due to Marshall, Sarah McMahan (Pete's widow), and Voyager Records, all of whom are responsible for making this material available once again. (Jim Nelson, The Old-Time Herald)

*****

Seattle's long-established Voyager label has done a good thing here by re-issuing all four of the LPs (vinyl) that the late, fine Missouri old-time fiddler recorded in the 1970s. McMahan was one of a small group of Ozark fiddlers who were still in fine form at the time and who managed to get their music out through mostly self-produced LPs (Lonnie Robertson and Lyman Enloe were two others in this category). McMahan played in a smooth, clean style with excellent noting, and was backed with open string guitar and bass fiddle. He had a wealth of good tunes that ranged from ancient old-timers to Bill Monroe pieces like GOLD RUSH and VIRGINIA DARLIN'; (about a quarter of the pieces here are waltzes). With a nice 20-page booklet of notes by Howard Marshall, this is a fine and very worthwhile album, and a great chance to hear and learn some of the classic regional fiddle tunes. (County Sales Newsletter)

*****

This two-disc set reissues four long play albums McMahan recorded in the 1970s. With this set, Voyager REcords has re-issued some of the best old time fiddling to come out of Missouri. McMahan, along with the likes of Taylor McBaine, Cyril Stinnett, and others was a force to be reckoned with on the extensive Missouri fiddle contest circuit. This is a great diversity of tunes on these CDs, demonstrating the melting pot of fiddle music that makes the Missouri tradition and reflecting the ready exchange with neighboring traditions. An extensive booklet with detailed notes is included with the CDs. This is a valuable addition to the fiddle fan's library. Hopefully Voyager will be able to reissue more of the fine fiddle music put out by the Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association as well as the fine old LPs like these that were put out by individual fiddlers. THis is an essential item for the fan of old time fiddling (Bob Buckingham - Fiddler Magazine)

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