The Red Fox Chasers, A Family Album of Hillbilly Braggarts, Preachers & Drunks

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:24

    A FamilyAlbum of Hillbilly Braggarts, Preachers & Drunks When a compilationLP of songs by the Red Fox Chasers came out in 1967, I was nine years old. Itmust have been lying around the old record player, and I must have heard itbeing played sometimes by my mother, but I didn't pay it any mind. I had noidea that the band was family. What Iknew at that time was that I had a semi-famous aunt on my father's side, OlaBelle Campbell Reed, and her brother Alex Campbell. They were on the radio everyweek on WASA in Havre de Grace, MD. In Definitive Country: The Ultimate Guideto Country Music and Its Performers by Barry McCloud, et al., the entry forAlex and Ola Belle Campbell and their New River Boys calls them "Two ofthe most popular and colorful performers in country music, with a career thathas spanned over 40 years." When Roy Acuff asked Ola Belle to join hisband and move to Nashville, she flat-out turned him down, much to the dismayof her brothers and sisters. Her reasons were she wanted to do her own thing,which she did, and, as she told me years later, "I wasn't takin' ordersfrom no man," which she didn't.

    What I didn'tknow was that I had this other famous blood relation, on my strange and mysteriousmother's side, the side with Cherokee blood. It wasn't until I was in my 20s,obsessed with country music and my family's small contribution to it, that Imade this most delightful discovery. This was sometime in the late 80s; I wasdown in Maryland visiting the family, and while thumbing through the old recordcollection I came across this 1967 Red Fox Chasers LP.

    For somereason I'll never know I asked my mother, "What's this record?"

    In her NorthCarolina laconic hillbilly drawl she said, "Oh, that's Uncle Guy's record."Just like that.

    "Youmean this is your uncle's band? My great-uncle's? And you never told me aboutit?"

    "Oh,I thought you only cared about the Campbell side of your family, always makin'such a fuss about Ola Belle and all."

    She saidit half-pissed. I had to set her straight.

    "Mother,I care about any blood relative of mine who made records, especially if theywrote songs, so I can sing and play them and brag about them."

    Notbragging about things is typical of my mother and her family. They always thoughtthe Campbell side of the family was a bunch of braggarts, like me. But the Brookseswere strange. In fact, they shouldn't even be called Brooks, they should goby some nameless Indian's name, because my great-great-great-grandfather, whowas a full-blooded Cherokee, remains nameless. We don't know who he was, andhe never married my wayward great-great-great-grandmother, who used her surnamefor the bastard that was my great-great-grandfather, the half-breed, Young Brooks.My Great-Uncle Guy, was therefore one-eighth Cherokee, which was such the stigmaback thar in them hills that his sister, Maggie, lived in fear that her schoolmateswould find out and ostracize her. So my mother's family was good at hiding things,and there was plenty to hide.

    "Well,your Uncle Guy wrote songs, but I don't know if you want to brag about him toomuch," my mother continued.

    "Whynot? Were they bad songs?"

    "No,the songs were all right. It's your Uncle Guy I'm talking about. Your grandfather,Uncle Guy's brother, didn't care for his music, or for him for that matter."


    "Oh,it's a long story-and one the rest of my family are not about to tell you. Therewas a big to-do, a scandal you might say, about Uncle Guy and his niece. Somesort of affair, supposedly. I don't know if it was true or not, but there werea few other things about Uncle Guy that made you, well, not put it past him.I never liked him much. Your grandfather didn't like his music and I don't rememberseeing any of his records in our house."

    I said,"Stop the presses, Maw!" (She hates it when I call her Maw.) "Iwant to write it all down for posterity."

    "Ifyou call me Maw again, I might not tell you. I don't know if you should writethis down, anyway. If it ever got out, my brothers and sisters would never speakto me again."

    "Don'tworry, I just want it for my own records. Besides, your brothers and sistersnever read anything but the Bible."

    (Her mother,my grandmother, down in the western mountains of North Carolina, once told mewhen I was a boy why she hated the Catholics. "They killed Jesus. Why doyou think they call 'em Roman Catholics?" That confused me for years.)

    "Whydidn't your father like his brother's music?"

    "Well,your grandfather was a better fiddler than Uncle Guy and won all the fiddlingcontests at the fiddlers' conventions back then, but his brother got to makethe records-78s they were back then-and they didn't get along. Dad thought hisbrother's music was too fast and made for the popular tastes."

    "UncleGuy was too pop?"

    "Andthey all looked down on him making records, especially some of the words. Theywere all very religious. Uncle Guy was not. And he drank. Now, this is longbefore he became a preacher. This was back in the 19 and 20s."

    "Hewas a preacher?"

    "Well,he called himself one. The family didn't put much stock in that, either."

    "Somy great-uncle was a drunken preacher and country music recording artist?"

    "Well,I don't know if he mixed the preachin' and the licker up, but I wouldn't putit past him."

    This wastoo good to be true. My head was reeling.

    "Also,"she laughed, "after Uncle Guy made his first record he rushed right outand bought himself a music stand, and he couldn't read music any more'n therest of them so they all thought he was putting on airs. Too big for his britches."

    "Ifhe couldn't read music, what did he use the music stand for?"

    "Oh,he'd put the words to his songs on it."

    "So,which songs did he write?"

    "Oh,I don't know. Some of them are on that record there."

    Up to thenI had never known how famous the Red Fox Chasers were, that they had recorded48 sides. According to Definitive Country, they "were one of the more popularmountain string bands of the 1920's" and had "several hits that were to remain influential for years," a few of which my uncle wrote.

    I had mymother point out my Uncle Guy in the photograph on the front of the LP. He wasthe fiddler and lyricist on their original tunes (though he rarely sang, andit would be some time, as I'll explain below, before I actually heard his voice).Next to him sat Bob Cranford, singer and mouth harpist, next to his lifelongfriend and musical partner, A.P. "Fonzie" Thompson, singer, guitaristand composer/plagiarist. Last on the right: Paul Miles, banjoist and lifelongdrinking/musical partner of Uncle Guy. They're all dressed in suits and theylook pretty evil. The whole front cover of the album was a deep blood red, andthe photo was also in red. They looked like a Satanic hillbilly band. R. Crumbused this very photograph for his drawing of the Red Fox Chasers in his Pioneersof Country Music trading card set. My favorite cartoonist had done a portraitof my great-uncle and his 1920s mountain string band! "Pauland Guy met A.P. and Bob at the 1927 Union Grove Fiddling Convention, and afteragreeing to form a band they decided to call themselves The Red Fox Chasersat the suggestion of Guy who loved to hunt. Paul's name was used ahead of theband since he was the organizer and leader. His objective in suggesting theformation of the band was to make records and he soon arranged for an audition,and consequently their first session, with the Gennett Co. of Richmond, Ind.On April 15, 1928 the band recorded its first of 8 sides. Because they thoughtthe record companies were interested primarily in vocals they did not come preparedto play any fiddle tunes (a number of which they always included in the manypersonal appearances they had begun to make)." Yep, I thought,selling out at the git-go, already going pop.

    "Butthe recording director, upon hearing them warm up with one, asked them to recorda few. One of these was 'Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe?' Guy's excellentfiddling on this tune is impressively accompanied by Paul's unique old time banjo style-forefinger picking up and down and thumb hitting the fifth and secondstrings."

    What Nevinsdidn't know is that Paul Miles' banjo picking is so "impressive" becausehe was actually using finger picks. Back then everybody played clawhammer orwithout picks, like Grandpa Jones. I learned this from my second cousin Lester Brooks (82) a few years ago. Lester told me that the first time he had everseen a banjo player using picks was Paul Miles, and he said people used to laughat him back then, thinking it was very strange. But it was proto-bluegrass picking,in the 20s. The other proto-bluegrass element to the Red Fox Chasers was thatthey played some of their songs at breakneck speed and sang way up high. I'mnot saying they invented bluegrass, but some of the elements were there, andthis was precisely what the old-timers didn't like.

    As I waslistening to the album I realized I had heard it many times over the years,when my mother would play it. I just didn't know it was blood.

    After Ifound out which songs Uncle Guy wrote, I put the needle down on them. One was"Honeysuckle Time," a preexisting old ragtime fiddle tune. Uncle Guyjust kept the title of this instrumental and grafted lyrics onto it. The tunewas way too fast for lyrics; the result was a song that could compete with anybluegrass song for pure unintelligible word-blur. I tried to learn this song,but it was impossible. I couldn't tell what the singers were singing. It wouldbe years before I would find out what Uncle Guy wrote. Cousin Lester and hiswife Lula came to my rescue.

    I was downvisiting from New York, preparing for rehab in Salisbury, MD. Maryland has allthe best alcohol and drug rehabs, the most famous being Father Martin's in Havrede Grace, but kind of pricey. Movie stars go there. My Eastern Shore watermanbuddy Joey Weller is an alumnus. His roommate was Chris Farley. I'm currentlytrying to get in on their scholarship program for gifted indigent types. I haveto, in fact, to complete my new reference book, Drug and Alcohol Rehabs of the East Coast.

    So I'm downthere and ask Lester if he can make out the lyrics to "Honeysuckle Time."Before he can say anything his wife drops the family bomb, saying, "Therewas a rumor that Uncle Guy wrote that as a love song to his niece."

    No wonderyou can't make it out.

    Lester deniedit and gently chided his wife for spreading such rumors. Lula just laughed andsaid, "That's what I heard."

    Lester said,"There ain't nothin to that old rumor. She probably just sat on his lapor something."

    Lula said,with a knowing twinkle in her eye, that I should write the niece. "I betshe knows the words to that song."

    "Oh,Lula." Lester shook his head.

    The niece,who shall remain nameless and will be hereafter referred to as Niece Doe, isin her 80s now and my second cousin, still living in the mountains of westernNorth Carolina on her family farm. I wrote and she fired back the lyrics to"Honeysuckle Time." The short letter she wrote only said that herkids had broken all the old 78s years ago (proto-frisbees) and that she wouldsoon also send me the lyrics to "Wreck on the Mountain Road." Thiswas the first time I'd even heard of that song; it wasn't on the compilationLP.

    I obviouslydidn't ask her about the alleged affair or if "Honeysuckle Time" hadbeen written for her by her uncle. But if so I could see why Uncle Guy mighthave wanted to obscure the words: "She's now 16 and I am 29/Oh, sweet littlegirl of mine/Hear the wedding bells chime for they say that you are mine/Wewere married in Honeysuckle Time." Married? Holy shit, Unc.

    When I askedUncle Lester about this "Wreck on the Mountain Road," he said, "Gimmethat guit-fiddle, boy, I believe I can play that there wreck song." Hetook the guitar and tore through it, remembering almost all the lyrics. I recognizedthe melody right away. It had obviously been lifted from "Wreck of theOld 97," the first million-selling country music record, and Uncle Guyhad put his own lyrics on it. Back then it was a common practice to take anold song and put new lyrics on it, kinda like rap music. And since they'd justgotten cars and had started wrecking them, the train in "Old 97" becamea truck-and thus was written THE FIRST COUNTRY CAR WRECK SONG IN HISTORY (1928).

    My motheractually went to school with the children of the man who had died in the wrecksong. But she had never heard the record, or the song. "I told you Daddidn't like his brother's music and didn't have those records in the house."

    I was downin Floyd, VA, a few years ago, home of County Records, asking about an LP compilationthat had a Red Fox Chasers song on it, long out of print, on the County label.Without even looking at it, the lady handed me a CD and I said, "No, thiswas an LP." But I looked at the CD anyway. It had just come out (1995)and was called Old-Time Mountain Ballads (County CD-3504). Damn nearshit myself when I saw what was on it: "Wreck on the Mountain Road."Out of print for more than 70 years, back now on CD.

    They alsohad a video documentary of Sunset Park, the legendary and now sadly defunctcountry music park where my Uncle Alex and his sister Ola Belle were the houseband for decades. I once asked Uncle Alex Campbell if he had any charming HankWilliams stories from Sunset Park or the similar New River Ranch. He laughedand called me aside, away from the womenfolk. "Well, it was at New RiverRanch, and me and Hank were standin' there between shows, and Hank nods to aman down below a-kissin' this woman, real hard, really goin' at it, up againsta tree in plain sight of everybody. And of course everybody was gawkin' at 'em.And Hank turns to me and says, 'What a man won't do for a piece of twat!'"

    When I wasthere in Floyd getting that CD, in the backseat of the car I had the original78, chipped but playable. I had just gotten it in North Carolina from NieceDoe. She just gave it to me because I expressed such an interest in my infamousuncle. On it the band goes by one of their many aliases, the Virginia PossumTamers (Why would you tame a possum?).

    When I calledup Rich Nevins for an update on his liner notes from 1967, he chuckled and saidhe was surprised that anyone would still be quoting them. I asked him aboutthe FIRST COUNTRY CAR WRECK SONG and he said, "Oh, it doesn't matter ifthey wrote the first car wreck song or not. It's the music that matters."

    The hellit doesn't matter, I thought. He obviously doesn't understand the importanceus hillbillies place on bragging.

    My NorthCarolina country cousins made that clear to me long ago, before I realized whata mother lode streak of it I had in myself. They bragged about everything Southernand how it was better. Even the fucking water. And I was a Yankee because Iwas born and raised in Maryland. I had to set them straight on that. John WilkesBooth was born and raised in Harford County, MD, and the only reason Marylandwas in the Union was Uncle Abe's Union troops, and there were anti-Union riotsin Baltimore when those first troops came down. Plus Uncle Abe shipped the wholeMaryland state Legislature north to Pennsylvania to avoid a vote on the subject,because he knew what it'd be. And Maryland is entirely below the Mason-Dixon Line.

    My hillbillycousins were not impressed. "You're still a goddamn Yankee." I hadto pound 'em to convince them otherwise. After I beat the tar out of them Iwould say, "So, Cousin, who just kicked your ass? A rebel or a Yankee?"

    I was sureenough a rebel then, because they weren't about to be beat by a Yankee.

    RichardNevins didn't get this Southern bragging thing, but he should have: He actuallymet two of the then-surviving Red Fox Chasers back in the 60s, in the mountainsof western North Carolina. Uncle Guy was already dead by then, or Nevins would have got a good overdose of bragging.

    He recalledbeing told that two of the Fox Chasers were more religious than the other two:that would be Cranford and Thompson on the religious side, Paul Miles and myuncle on Satan's (never mind his later calling himself a preacher). Nevins saysthat the former felt bad about some of the lyrics on their recordings and thelatter didn't-probably got drunk and laughed about it.

    One of theirrecordings, Makin' Licker in North Carolina, was a two-78, four-sidecomedy skit with music, in which these rogues are, well, makin' liquor and gettingthe lawman drunk and other bad, unreligious things. Miles meanwhile, in hisonly known stab at lyrics writing, penned the fabulous "Virginia Bootleggers,"lyrics he grafted onto the tune of "River of Jordan," an old Caucasoidspiritual. The most hilarious line is when they all sing, "I'm gonna buyme a barrel of whiskey, oh yeah! I'm gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey some ofthese days halleluia!"

    It's that"halleluia" and the fact that they were ripping off a spiritual-typesong in the heart of the Bible Belt in the 20s that made it such a scandal-thepunk rock of its day. Those hillbillies took their religion damn seriously.I could see why my grandfather, a frequent backslider himself, didn't like hisbrother's music.

    Strangely,two descendants of those not-so-religious Red Fox Chasers would later sort ofredeem their kin by recording an a cappella gospel album for the later-famousHeritage label: The Walker Family (Family Circle/Heritage XV), recordedin 1977. Wade Miles, Paul's son, and a niece of Uncle Guy, my Aunt Viola, appearon this humble Christian album of unaccompanied old-time gospel harmonies. Thereis no mention of Viola's or Wade's famous recording artist relatives. Maybethey'd been forgotten by then-or not forgotten enough. Maybe, despite Viola'suncle having later become a "preacher," the Red Fox Chasers were stillan embarrassment.

    Uncle Guynever got run out of town for making his profane records, but he damn near didfor something else: One of his brothers ran him off his farm for whatever wasgoing on with Guy and his daughter. We'll never know if they did "it"or not, but when 80-something Niece Doe gave me that Red Fox Chasers 78, I videotapedan interview with her for a documentary I began doing on the family with myfriend Michael Trossman. In a half-hour interview, Niece Doe says that UncleGuy was "handsome" about 10 times. Hmm...

    All theRed Fox Chasers are dead now-and country music is too, according to the manfrom whom I finally obtained tapes of all their recordings: a true Marylandeccentric and world-renowned record collector, Joe Bussard.

    From themoment I read that the Chasers had recorded 48 sides, I was dying to hear andhave them all. On that '67 compilation LP there were only 12 songs. Where werethe other 36? After Niece Doe gave me "Wreck on the Mountain Road,"I was still down 35.

    Then, acouple of years ago, I got this mysterious call from a young cousin I had nevermet, down in North Carolina. Luke Paisley, then in his early 20s, had been toldby my North Carolina relatives to contact cousin Zane, the self-appointed Red Fox Chasers expert in the family. Luke had been bitten by the ancestor-worshipbug too, being an old-time musician himself. I filled him in on what I knew,but he had done his homework as well: He had tape recordings of all themissing 35 songs. He'd gotten them from Bussard, the famous 78 collector, eccentricand old-time music-playing DJ in the town of Frederick, MD.

    I thankedLuke profusely, hung up on him and called Bussard. I could tell he was insaneright away. Like me, he was obviously an obsessive-compulsive in dire need ofsome fresh air. I was a bit more specialized in my obsession: Joe collected78s of country, bluegrass, old jazz and blues. He told me right away that countrymusic died in 1955, thanks to "Trashville" and drums. Jazz only madeit to 1934. The blues have survived, but watered-down and shitty. Joe's 78shave been used for Robert Johnson reissues and many others. He built his swimmingpool with the proceeds from all the 78s he sold to Canned Heat back in the 60s.

    I made arrangementsto go see him the very next day. Then I called one of my best Maryland friends,Bob Weaver-sixtysomething, cofounder of Weaver's, "Maryland's Largest LiquorStore," and successful lobbyist, instrumental in getting legislation passedto permit the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Now that's civilization. Bobowed me a favor and said he would drive me to Frederick, since my driver's licensehad been taken away due to a misunderstanding.

    I purchasedtape recordings of all my great-uncle's songs from Joe that day. We videotapeda segment of Joe bouncing off the walls of his record vault playing air fiddle,air guitar, air banjo, like he was on speed. Then we made the mistake of takinghim out to lunch. He cleared the place of its largely retired-looking patronsscreaming and spitting about "fucking Trashville!" and "fuckingmodern jazz shit!" and "goddamn fucking rap music!" and "fuckingAlison Krauss shit, that ain't bluegrass!"

    Joe hada glossy old photograph of the Red Fox Chasers on his wall, along with manyothers of old-time string bands, blues artists, jazzers, plus old record sleevesand other paraphernalia. There were records on the wall of various strange sizes;one was a KKK record with a burning cross on the label. The place looked likea museum. There was an estimated million dollars' worth of rare 78s lining thosewalls, unalphabetized or numbered, yet Joe could walk up to and pull whateverhe wanted out. It was from this wall of 78s that he pulled every 78 the RedFox Chasers ever recorded, under all their different names for various recordlabels, including one that was unissued and is the only known copy in existence:"When the Redeemed Are Gathering In."

    Joe Bussardwas the first real fan of the Red Fox Chasers I had ever met, outside of mycousin Luke. I would say outside of the family, but the family except for meand Luke didn't have much use for Uncle Guy or his music. Some were openly hostileto the poor rogue's memory, calling him a "no-account shifter" (i.e.,shiftless) who "never amounted to much."

    When youvisit Joe, which he encourages, even if you don't buy anything, what he likesmore than collecting is turning people on to this old music. He will play old78s until you pass out, and then complain that you're a lightweight. "Ithought you said you wanted to hear some music!"

    The strangestexperience I had in Joe's vault was hearing my great-Uncle Guy's voice for thefirst time on that comedy skit, Makin' Licker in North Carolina. UncleGuy was born on March 5, 1896, and died Feb. 10, 1958. I was born Feb. 26, 1958.But when I heard his voice on that record I knew it immediately and could distinguishit without question from the voices of the other Red Fox Chasers. He soundedexactly like my grandfather-his brother-and like my Uncle Lacy as well. Our videotape captures the moment. You hear me saying, "That must be UncleGuy!"-just before he is identified by the ghost of one of the other RedFox Chasers, 70 years ago.

    Zane Campbellplays Acme Underground on Tuesday, July 20, 6 p.m.