Let me get straight to the point. The Ozark Highballers’ latest release “Goin’ Down to ‘Leven Point” puts a huge smile on my face every time I listen to it. And I’ve listened to it a lot. There is nothing clinical or stagnant about this record. It sounds like a party. This may not be Appalachian string band music but it is definitely, if not defiantly, old time-music. I adore this album. Where’s the clawhammer? It doesn’t matter, it’s good. What’s that extra treble sound matching the fiddle note for note? Harmonica? This sounds great! The Ozark Highballers have made a hit record. Off the bat I hear an homage to Tom Ashley and Charlie Poole. I can hear the vibrant excitement in every track as well as the honest care and passion of getting this right.
With Roy Pilgrim on fiddle, Aviva Steigmeyer on guitar, Clarke Buehling on banjo, and Seth Shumate on harmonica The Ozark Highballers create fun, driving music on every track. On Ridin’ Old Paint/Hell Amongst the Yearlings they bring a fresh take to some well-worn chestnuts with strong, unpretentious singing and playing. Everybody Schottische breathes life into a form once very common when the Bohemian dance craze swept through the United States in the mid-19th century. On Going Back to Where I Come Aviva Steigmeier beautifully sings a humorous novelty song from Arkansas sisters Helen Fultz and Phydella Hogan. Picking favorites on this album is a futile task. These tracks exemplify the community dance heritage this music brings back to life so well, especially under the careful guidance of The Ozark Highballers.
A time existed before old-time music was called “old-time” music. The days were long and hard; modern convenience consisted of a box that kept a large ice cube cold enough to keep a family’s meat supply from turning too quickly. Community was a tool of survival and neighbors would often gather in celebration through music and dance. Think, a Renfro-Valley kind of ideal – almost too good to be true. At least, that’s what the old timers have lead me to believe. This imagery, however romanticized and exaggerated, lives on in modern day old-time music, through the stories and the sounds, buoying our belief in the value of tradition, place, and community. It also lives on through the efforts and passionate studies of bands like The Ozark Highballers to spotlight amazing regional styles, bringing them back to our collective attention.
We are in the midst of a conceptual turn in the old-time community in which long-held ideas of what the music is are being slowly and methodically corrected. Ideas about its rural roots are being augmented by our better understanding of how urban life has always interacted with the music. Ideas about the “purity” of its cultural and/or ethnic lineage are being supplanted by an ever-deeper historical understanding of the myriad influences that have always flowed in and out of the music. Ideas about its regional home in the Appalachians or in the mountains are also being brushed away by waves of regional studies from around the continent, finally showing us what has always been the truth: old-time is America’s folk music, played in unique dialects across the centuries and across the country, in mountains and plains, in deserts and forests, in cities and farming villages, mill towns and lonesome hollers, in rough-hewn cabins and fine Victorian houses. Embracing this broader understanding of old-time requires we widen our view and see the diversity that has always been around us.
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One particularly powerful tool in this project is the deeper understanding of how old-time has developed and flourished in places that are not within the bounds of the Appalachian mindscape. Harry Bolick’s work on Mississippi fiddle tunes, Drew Beisswenger and Gordan McCann’s work on the Ozarks, Howard Wight Marshall’s books on Missouri fiddling, and Philip Martin’s research on rural string band music in Wisconsin are but a few examples of this.
The music of The Ozark Highballers, their research, collecting, and in-depth liner notes only add to this diverse picture, highlighting the infectious, driving music of the Ozarks. It is familiar yet different. Enjoyable and relatable, but very exciting and new. They have wisely and earnestly introduced the entire world to a dialect of old-time music that is refreshing; it is a reminder that no one way is uniquely correct. I don’t think I would have ever fallen down the rabbit whole of old-time musicians from west of the Blue Ridge if not for this album and for that I must give much appreciation to The Ozark Highballers.
Old-time music, mountain music, string band music, or whatever we want to call it has one purpose – it must be shared. The community dies when the stories and the music die. The Ozark Highballers with this release “Goin’ Down to ‘Leven Point” show they understand this. Through painstaking research and honest craftsmanship they have brought something to the table that doesn’t get heard enough. The songs and tales from the Ozarks are the songs and tales of America, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to scratch the surface through the ears and talents of The Ozark Highballers.
This album was released on April 5th 2019 through Jalopy Records
Their music should be bought, but if you must they are also on streaming on Soundcloud
Review co-authored with Benjamin Smith