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

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:24

    A Family Album of Hillbilly Braggarts, Preachers & Drunks When a compilation LP of songs by the Red Fox Chasers came out in 1967, I was nine years old. It must have been lying around the old record player, and I must have heard it being played sometimes by my mother, but I didn't pay it any mind. I had no idea that the band was family.

    What I knew at that time was that I had a semi-famous aunt on my father's side, Ola Belle Campbell Reed, and her brother Alex Campbell. They were on the radio every week on WASA in Havre de Grace, MD. In Definitive Country: The Ultimate Guide to Country Music and Its Performers by Barry McCloud, et al., the entry for Alex and Ola Belle Campbell and their New River Boys calls them "Two of the most popular and colorful performers in country music, with a career that has spanned over 40 years." When Roy Acuff asked Ola Belle to join his band and move to Nashville, she flat-out turned him down, much to the dismay of 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' orders from no man," which she didn't.

    What I didn't know was that I had this other famous blood relation, on my strange and mysterious mother'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 I made this most delightful discovery. This was sometime in the late 80s; I was down in Maryland visiting the family, and while thumbing through the old record collection I came across this 1967 Red Fox Chasers LP.

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

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

    "You mean this is your uncle's band? My great-uncle's? And you never told me about it?"

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

    She said it half-pissed. I had to set her straight.

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

    Not bragging about things is typical of my mother and her family. They always thought the Campbell side of the family was a bunch of braggarts, like me. But the Brookses were strange. In fact, they shouldn't even be called Brooks, they should go by some nameless Indian's name, because my great-great-great-grandfather, who was a full-blooded Cherokee, remains nameless. We don't know who he was, and he never married my wayward great-great-great-grandmother, who used her surname for 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 stigma back thar in them hills that his sister, Maggie, lived in fear that her schoolmates would 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 too much," my mother continued.

    "Why not? 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."

    "Why not?"

    "Oh, it's a long story?and one the rest of my family are not about to tell you. There was a big to-do, a scandal you might say, about Uncle Guy and his niece. Some sort of affair, supposedly. I don't know if it was true or not, but there were a 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 remember seeing any of his records in our house."

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

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

    "Don't worry, I just want it for my own records. Besides, your brothers and sisters never read anything but the Bible."

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

    "Why didn't your father like his brother's music?"

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

    "Uncle Guy was too pop?"

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

    "He was a preacher?"

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

    "So my 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 put it past him."

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

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

    "If he 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 then I had never known how famous the Red Fox Chasers were, that they had recorded 48 sides. According to Definitive Country, they "were one of the more popular mountain 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 my mother point out my Uncle Guy in the photograph on the front of the LP. He was the fiddler and lyricist on their original tunes (though he rarely sang, and it 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 lifelong friend and musical partner, A.P. "Fonzie" Thompson, singer, guitarist and composer/plagiarist. Last on the right: Paul Miles, banjoist and lifelong drinking/musical partner of Uncle Guy. They're all dressed in suits and they look pretty evil. The whole front cover of the album was a deep blood red, and the photo was also in red. They looked like a Satanic hillbilly band. R. Crumb used this very photograph for his drawing of the Red Fox Chasers in his Pioneers of Country Music trading card set. My favorite cartoonist had done a portrait of my great-uncle and his 1920s mountain string band!   "Paul and Guy met A.P. and Bob at the 1927 Union Grove Fiddling Convention, and after agreeing to form a band they decided to call themselves The Red Fox Chasers at the suggestion of Guy who loved to hunt. Paul's name was used ahead of the band since he was the organizer and leader. His objective in suggesting the formation 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 thought the record companies were interested primarily in vocals they did not come prepared to play any fiddle tunes (a number of which they always included in the many personal appearances they had begun to make)."

    Yep, I thought, selling out at the git-go, already going pop.

    "But the recording director, upon hearing them warm up with one, asked them to record a few. One of these was 'Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe?' Guy's excellent fiddling 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 second strings."

    What Nevins didn't know is that Paul Miles' banjo picking is so "impressive" because he was actually using finger picks. Back then everybody played clawhammer or without 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 ever seen a banjo player using picks was Paul Miles, and he said people used to laugh at 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 that they played some of their songs at breakneck speed and sang way up high. I'm not saying they invented bluegrass, but some of the elements were there, and this was precisely what the old-timers didn't like.

    As I was listening 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 I found out which songs Uncle Guy wrote, I put the needle down on them. One was "Honeysuckle Time," a preexisting old ragtime fiddle tune. Uncle Guy just kept the title of this instrumental and grafted lyrics onto it. The tune was way too fast for lyrics; the result was a song that could compete with any bluegrass 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 would be years before I would find out what Uncle Guy wrote. Cousin Lester and his wife Lula came to my rescue.

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

    So I'm down there 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, "There was a rumor that Uncle Guy wrote that as a love song to his niece."

    No wonder you can't make it out.

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

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

    Lula said, with a knowing twinkle in her eye, that I should write the niece. "I bet she 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, is in her 80s now and my second cousin, still living in the mountains of western North Carolina on her family farm. I wrote and she fired back the lyrics to "Honeysuckle Time." The short letter she wrote only said that her kids had broken all the old 78s years ago (proto-frisbees) and that she would soon also send me the lyrics to "Wreck on the Mountain Road." This was the first time I'd even heard of that song; it wasn't on the compilation LP.

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

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

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

    I was down in Floyd, VA, a few years ago, home of County Records, asking about an LP compilation that 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, this was 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 near shit 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 also had a video documentary of Sunset Park, the legendary and now sadly defunct country music park where my Uncle Alex and his sister Ola Belle were the house band for decades. I once asked Uncle Alex Campbell if he had any charming Hank Williams stories from Sunset Park or the similar New River Ranch. He laughed and called me aside, away from the womenfolk. "Well, it was at New River Ranch, and me and Hank were standin' there between shows, and Hank nods to a man down below a-kissin' this woman, real hard, really goin' at it, up against a 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 was there in Floyd getting that CD, in the backseat of the car I had the original 78, chipped but playable. I had just gotten it in North Carolina from Niece Doe. She just gave it to me because I expressed such an interest in my infamous uncle. On it the band goes by one of their many aliases, the Virginia Possum Tamers (Why would you tame a possum?).

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

    The hell it doesn't matter, I thought. He obviously doesn't understand the importance us hillbillies place on bragging.

    My North Carolina country cousins made that clear to me long ago, before I realized what a mother lode streak of it I had in myself. They bragged about everything Southern and how it was better. Even the fucking water. And I was a Yankee because I was born and raised in Maryland. I had to set them straight on that. John Wilkes Booth was born and raised in Harford County, MD, and the only reason Maryland was in the Union was Uncle Abe's Union troops, and there were anti-Union riots in Baltimore when those first troops came down. Plus Uncle Abe shipped the whole Maryland 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 hillbilly cousins were not impressed. "You're still a goddamn Yankee." I had to pound 'em to convince them otherwise. After I beat the tar out of them I would say, "So, Cousin, who just kicked your ass? A rebel or a Yankee?"

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

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

    He recalled being 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 my uncle on Satan's (never mind his later calling himself a preacher). Nevins says that the former felt bad about some of the lyrics on their recordings and the latter didn't?probably got drunk and laughed about it.

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

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

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

    Uncle Guy never got run out of town for making his profane records, but he damn near did for something else: One of his brothers ran him off his farm for whatever was going 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 videotaped an interview with her for a documentary I began doing on the family with my friend Michael Trossman. In a half-hour interview, Niece Doe says that Uncle Guy was "handsome" about 10 times. Hmm...

    All the Red Fox Chasers are dead now?and country music is too, according to the man from whom I finally obtained tapes of all their recordings: a true Maryland eccentric and world-renowned record collector, Joe Bussard.

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

    Then, a couple of years ago, I got this mysterious call from a young cousin I had never met, down in North Carolina. Luke Paisley, then in his early 20s, had been told by 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-worship bug 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 the missing 35 songs. He'd gotten them from Bussard, the famous 78 collector, eccentric and old-time music-playing DJ in the town of Frederick, MD.

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

    I made arrangements to 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 Liquor Store," and successful lobbyist, instrumental in getting legislation passed to permit the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Now that's civilization. Bob owed me a favor and said he would drive me to Frederick, since my driver's license had been taken away due to a misunderstanding.

    I purchased tape recordings of all my great-uncle's songs from Joe that day. We videotaped a 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 taking him out to lunch. He cleared the place of its largely retired-looking patrons screaming and spitting about "fucking Trashville!" and "fucking modern jazz shit!" and "goddamn fucking rap music!" and "fucking Alison Krauss shit, that ain't bluegrass!"

    Joe had a glossy old photograph of the Red Fox Chasers on his wall, along with many others of old-time string bands, blues artists, jazzers, plus old record sleeves and 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 like a museum. There was an estimated million dollars' worth of rare 78s lining those walls, unalphabetized or numbered, yet Joe could walk up to and pull whatever he wanted out. It was from this wall of 78s that he pulled every 78 the Red Fox Chasers ever recorded, under all their different names for various record labels, including one that was unissued and is the only known copy in existence: "When the Redeemed Are Gathering In."

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

    When you visit Joe, which he encourages, even if you don't buy anything, what he likes more than collecting is turning people on to this old music. He will play old 78s until you pass out, and then complain that you're a lightweight. "I thought you said you wanted to hear some music!"

    The strangest experience I had in Joe's vault was hearing my great-Uncle Guy's voice for the first time on that comedy skit, Makin' Licker in North Carolina. Uncle Guy 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 distinguish it without question from the voices of the other Red Fox Chasers. He sounded exactly like my grandfather?his brother?and like my Uncle Lacy as well. Our videotape captures the moment. You hear me saying, "That must be Uncle Guy!"?just before he is identified by the ghost of one of the other Red Fox Chasers, 70 years ago.

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