Rise and Bloom Again
County Records and the legacy of Tommy Jarrell
By Robert Cochran

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2000


In 1966, legendary fiddler Thomas Jefferson Jarrell retired from his job as a motor-grader operator for the North Carolina Highway Department. His wife, Nina, died less than a year later, in 1967. Jarrell had married in 1923 and worked on the highways since 1925. Forty years plus—a married life and a working life—and suddenly it was over. Up the coast, in Newark, New Jersey, just three years earlier, bluegrass enthusiast David Freeman had launched a labor-of-love reissue record label with an LP record titled Mountain Fiddle Music. Freeman called his label County. He was twenty-seven, almost forty years younger than Tommy Jarrell, and neither man had ever heard of the other. But that would soon change.

The Jarrell family, who lived in the Round Peak area north of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, along the Virginia border, had long been associated with music. Tommy Jarrell's father played fiddle for a band called Da Costa Woltz and His Southern Broadcasters in the 1920s. Tommy began to play fiddle at thirteen (after starting out even earlier on the banjo), when his father bought neighbor Tony Lowe's fiddle from his widow for five dollars. Tommy learned mostly from his father, and played his first dance as a stand-in for him, though he also learned Civil War tunes from such area fiddlers as Confederate Army veterans "Pet" McKinney and Zack Paine.

But then, with marriage, work and the responsibilities of family life (the Jarrells had three children), "I quit making music for about forty years there, I didn't play none much and I forgot some of them songs." Jarrell's son Benjamin Franklin Jarrell, working as a radio deejay near Durham, North Carolina, restarted his father's musical career in the late 1960s, when he learned that a graduate student named Alan Jabbour was searching for old-time fiddlers. "You ought to hear my Daddy play," he said. Jabbour came and listened, came back again to record, and set in motion the remarkable musical reflorescence that lasted until Jarrell's death in 1985. In the last two decades of his life, Tommy Jarrell appeared regularly at national folk festivals, recorded at least eight albums, starred in two movies directed by noted documentary filmmaker Les Blank and received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982.

At the very center of this late blooming was County Records, which by the early 1970s had grown from its modest beginnings to an impressive list of reissue albums, featuring such giants of the early years of recorded country music as North Carolina banjo player Charley Poole, Georgia fiddler Gid Tanner and Tennessee banjo comic Uncle Dave Macon. County first recorded Jarrell in the 1960s, on three albums by a reconstructed Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters outfit, with Jarrell in his father's old fiddle spot. These were followed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by four albums featuring Jarrell's fiddle and banjo music, and still later, in 1992, by another compilation pairing Jarrell's fiddle with the banjo of Fred Cockerham.

Now, in celebration of its thirty-fifth anniversary, County has reissued the four albums featuring Jarrell in a four-CD set titled The Legacy of Tommy Jarrell. It is an impressive collection, containing a total of fifty-four numbers. The first volume, Sail Away Ladies, offers fifteen fiddle solos (many with vocals) ranging from well-known favorites like "Soldier's Joy" and "Bonaparte's Retreat" to rarities like the bluesy "Raleigh and Spencer." A line from this song's third verse could serve as the motto for Jarrell's rebirth as a musician: "You can tromp down the flowers all round my grave, but they'll rise and bloom again."

On Volume Two, Rainbow Sign, Jarrell's fiddle is accompanied by friends and admirers Verlen Clifton (mandolin), Andy Cahan (banjo) and Alice Gerrard (guitar) on fourteen numbers, ranging from the straight-up gospel of "God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign" to the high-octane instrumental "Fire on the Mountain" to the sharp sorrow of "Little Maggie." Come and Go with Me, the set's third volume, consists of twelve banjo solos, many with vocals, though "Sweet Sunny South" (played on a fretless instrument) is a wonderful instrumental. "Old Reuben," a tune Jarrell learned at seven or eight and the first song he ever played, is another high point.

The final CD, Pickin' on Tommy's Porch, again features Jarrell on fiddle, accompanied on banjo by Cahan and on guitar by Chester McMillan. This may be the best of the lot, with renditions of thirteen pieces, most of them remembered from his father's playing. This is terrific, good-time, dance-all-night-with-a-bottle-in-your-hand music—as the title of one of its songs puts it. This disk includes the happiest version of "Lonesome Road Blues" ever recorded, plus such up-tempo rousers as "What're You Gonna Do with the Baby-o." Nothing short of fully certified death could sit still through such stuff.

Any qualifier to all this praise? Yeah, it's true that the liner notes to all four volumes are mostly schlock, and that's a small shame. Tommy Jarrell was tough as hell under all his talents, and his life was tumultuous. The more harrowing moments were closer to the nightmare image of the life and times of Dock Boggs than the fawning nostalgia we get here. (For a much better job, see Ray Alden's notes to Tommy and Fred, the 1992 County CD featuring Jarrell and Fred Cockerham.) But when the music is this good, shortcomings in the notes are mere quibbles. All in all, The Legacy of Tommy Jarrell is a lovely tribute to a wonderful musician and raconteur (the inclusion of Jarrell's spoken introductions to many songs was a brilliant idea) and a wholly appropriate celebration of County's enduring commitment to the glories of old-time music.