For many, Etta Baker was a name on an old LP of Appalachian instrumentals found in the cheapo bins for decades on various labels. That LP was reissued many times over and her One Dime Blues was heard by folks who had no idea who she was. She lived in relative obscurity in Morganton, N.C., where she played mostly guitar. Over the years, several people encouraged her banjo playing, and this CD displays her two-finger take on what she remembered of her father’s clawhammer playing.
Recorded in nearly a half-dozen sessions, the quality of this recording is rich and full, an aural treat. Playing a less than stellar instrument, Baker draws a full and satisfying tone from the banjo in an object lesson on how less can really be more. Her precise and clean picking lays out the melody with no unnecessary fanfare. Wayne Martin’s fiddle snakes along, catching every melodic twist and turn in these understated but exciting tunes. David Holt’s slide guitar on “John Henry” is the perfect foil for Baker’s direct banjo.
It is to the credit of the Music Maker Foundation that they sought to release this project and do so with such high production values. The consistency of the sound throughout the range of sessions that make up this recording is amazing. Although some tunes are repeated, the versions bring something different to the ear each time. “Love Somebody,” (commonly known as “Soldier’s Joy”) is an original take on an old evergreen. The last two cuts are from 1955 and feature Boone Reid playing clawhammer banjo.
At the start of the disc, we hear Etta Baker stating that she tries to capture what she heard her father and those before him play on the banjo. This is an important look backwards into banjo history by someone who grew up and lived in the tradition. We are richer for having this valuable project available. (Music Maker Relief Foundation, P.O. Box 1358, Hillborough, NC 27278, www.musicmaker.org.) RCB