A mere 13 years after recording its debut album, the Miami Valley’s favorite old-time country stringband has released a follow-up. The Corndrinkers Still, the sophomore album from the Clark County-based quintet, shows that the Corndrinkers are more than ever the masters of their domain—the songs and tunes from what’s called the “Golden Age of Country Music,” the years between 1925 and the early 1940s. To say that the band has grown in the intervening years, and gotten much, much better and deeper in every conceivable way, is probably obvious as well as an understatement, but it’s true. The Corndrinkers Still is one of the best albums of traditional country music I’ve heard in quite a while.
The Corndrinkers—Linda Scutt (fiddle), Barb Kuhns (fiddle), Tom Duffee (banjo), Doug Smith (guitar, dobro) and Al “T-Bone” Turnbull (bass)—have been playing music together for 35 years and it shows, both in the tightness of the ensemble playing and in the sublime groove the band attains with seeming ease. From the earliest days at Carriage Hill Farm and the WYSO Country Jamboree to appearances at the Cityfolk Festival to their annual gig at the Cityfolk contra dances, the Corndrinkers have stayed true to their goal of finding “gems from the long history of country music and giv[ing] them new life.” With nary a personnel change in three and a half decades…surely a record of some kind.
With two superb fiddlers in the ranks, it’s not surprising that the Corndrinkers are tune wranglers of the highest order. Add Tom’s driving yet melodic banjo to the mix, and the Corndrinkers have as potent an instrumental front line as any band now on the circuit. The fiddle tunes come from an interesting variety of sources, some relatively well known—Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, J.P. Fraley, Western Swing pioneer Cliff Bruner—and some more obscure, like Roger Cooper, Bob Walters and Frank Miller.
The tunes are truly “gems”; my favorites include “Smith’s Reel/Oyster Girl,” “Snowbird in the Ashbank/Sara Armstrong’s Tune,” “Little Brown Hand,” “Old Voile” and a pair of fine new tunes written by Barb Kuhns, “Mona in the Garden” and “Snowy Evening Waltz.” In recognition of the hundreds (if not thousands) of square dances they have played, dance caller Ceal Turnbull joins the band for a rousing version of “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” complete with calls.
Singing is an afterthought for many old-time bands in their pursuit of tune nirvana, but the Corndrinkers honor the vocal side of vintage country music with sterling versions of songs from the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, first-generation country songwriter Carson Robison and one of my favorite old Mac Wiseman songs, “I’m A Stranger Here.”
All of the Corndrinkers sing, at least harmonies, but the lead singing duties are shared by Tom, Doug and Linda, with T-Bone singing lead on “Picture on the Wall.” Stand-out cuts include “I’m A Stranger Here” (Tom), “Wabash Blues” (a sweet Doug-Barb-Linda trio) and two songs that showcase an especially appealing Tom-Linda duet, “Waltzing on Top of the World” and “In the Shadow of the Pines.”
To quote the Corndrinkers speaking of the music of the Carter Family, listening to The Corndrinkers Still is like “settling into the comforts of home.” On my last trip to Dayton, my old pal T-Bone hosted my dad and me at a Dayton Dragons game. He gave me a copy of this CD and was interested to hear what I thought of it. Here’s my opinion after a couple of months of listening to it: It’s mighty fine. Everybody who likes real country music should probably buy a copy of this CD. It might be a while until the next one.
As good as the CD is, the group is even better live. Don't take my word for it: they'll be at Canal Street Tavern in Dayton on Friday, August 27 starting at 8:30 pm. Tickets are just $10.