The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show are playing to crowds in the thousands. Young hipsters are dancing to the banjo. Internet accessibility has put the record industry in peril, and authenticity has a chance to survive, as the concept of dictating what is mainstream gradually dies. From where I stand, it’s a good time to be a music fan.
But it wouldn’t be prudent to praise the current state of the Southern string band and not pay homage to Charlie Poole. Most people have never heard of this short-lived pioneer of country and bluegrass, the almost mythical figure in the spirit of what Robert Johnson meant to the blues. He preceded the likes of Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams, Earl Scruggs, and Bill Monroe, and he was one of the reasons these legends existed. He’s been called the “patron saint of country music,” credited as the first to get songs about personal harsh realities passed on from oral tradition to vinyl. And although by lifestyle he was certainly no saint, he’s also just as responsible for the development of bluegrass. A North Carolina native, Poole unintentionally created the three-finger banjo picking style, after he tried to catch a baseball barehanded—the result of a drunken bet—and was left with a cocked grip.
It’s just one of many stories that characterize this Depression-era tragedy. It’s unfortunate, but the tragic aspects of his life made his songs so real. Poole was a hard-drinking mill worker and bootlegger from Randolph County who once wailed his five-string across the head of a police officer. While waiting for the whiskey to distill in the woods, he picked tunes with his friend and fiddler Posey Wilson Rorer. Along with guitarist Norman Woodlieff, the pair went on to form the North Carolina Ramblers, an apt name for a couple of booze runners. After playing all over the South, a fateful trip to New York City brought the mountain boys a big break in 1925. An audition for Columbia yielded the first country music hit, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” a single that went on to sell 102,000 copies and is still covered by young bands today. Through the next six years Poole songs tackled politics (“White House Blues”), love (“The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee”), and of course his beloved alcohol (“Take a Drink on Me”). He experienced a whirlwind of success and influenced a number of groups that copied his style. But ultimately economic woes defeated the demand for entertainment, and by 1931 Poole was back in the mills. He ended his life penniless, even after pawning his favorite Gibson banjo, and essentially drank himself to death at the age of 39.
It’s been said that Poole came and went almost as though he never existed. But his influence is undoubtedly felt in those still making music today. David Grisman and Jerry Garcia used a Poole song to name their 70s bluegrass band Old and in the Way. In 2004 John Mellencamp updated “White House Blues” to create the protest “To Washington.” A few years ago Columbia released You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me, a three-CD box set that covers Poole’s recording career. In short time it’s been relegated to a cheap score on eBay. All the more reason to experience the simple, honest songs of a man who lived hard, died early, and changed the music industry for the better—something that is finally starting to happen again with a hand of his legacy.