The making of Robert C. Byrd’s “Mountain Fiddler”
This story originally appeared in the July 6, 2010 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.
In all of the obituaries written about the late Sen. Robert Byrd over the last week, there’s one detail nearly everyone made sure to include alongside his political victories and infamous missteps—his love of traditional mountain music.
A longtime fiddler himself, Byrd held onto his love of old-time tunes when he left the hills of West Virginia for Washington, D.C.
Among his countless, historic accomplishments, the nation’s longest-serving senator is also the only person to have recorded a musical album on Capitol Hill.
His record, “Mountain Fiddler,” was released on County Records in 1978. The project began two years earlier, when Alan Jabbour from the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center contacted Barry Poss, a producer with the record company.
“They had been talking with Sen. Byrd about doing some recording, but it really wasn’t part of the Library of Congress’s mission to get involved. They weren’t really set up for this kind of venture because it was a public recording,” Poss said.
So Jabbour asked if Poss was interested in the project. He was, and made a trip to D.C. to meet with Byrd.
“It was a little bit different. My normal routine was to meet artists at a club or backstage at a festival at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Poss said.
Instead, Poss met the senator in his Capitol Hill office, where Byrd played him some rough demo tapes he had already prepared. The men met several more times to work through Byrd’s extensive repertoire and come up with songs for the record.
Poss said the goal was to cover a broad range of music, from old folk songs and dance to gospel tunes.
“The kinds of music that, growing up in rural West Virginia or even anywhere in the southern Appalachians, you would have heard,” Poss said.
The men eventually chose 14 songs, including “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Cripple Creek,” “Durang’s Hornpipe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” and “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die.”
The producer then was charged with booking a recording studio and finding musicians to back the Senate majority leader. And he knew exactly who to call first—Doyle Lawson.
Poss had just produced Doyle Lawson’s first solo album, “Tennessee Dream,” also released on County Records.
Lawson, a multi-instrumentalist who first appeared on the national bluegrass scene in the early ’60s as Jimmy Martin’s banjo player, was at the time playing mandolin in the Washington D.C.-based group the Country Gentlemen.
“He was just the right person, because Doyle is a born leader,” Poss said of Lawson. “He has this incredible ability to bring others around him to inspire him and bring them along to where there’s really good studio-quality material.”
Although he was an accomplished musician, Byrd performed solo for most of his musical life. He often would crack open his fiddle case to play some tunes at fundraisers, rallies and campaign stops but was unaccustomed to playing with other pickers.
Without a strong, talented rhythm section behind the senator, Poss worried the songs might fall apart.
“People who (perform by themselves) have a different sense of rhythm. They can be a little freer with the rhythm,” he said. “I had to make sure the caliber of the musicians was high enough to bring Sen. Byrd along.”
Lawson accepted Poss’ offer and recruited Country Gentlemen band mate James Bailey to play banjo on the record. Lawson then picked Spider Gilliam, the Gentlemen’s road manager and sometime bass player, to hold down the low end.
Poss said his original plan was to have Byrd record in a professional studio. He took the senator to Bias Studios in northwest Virginia for a pre-recording visit but could tell something was wrong.
“He looked a bit uncomfortable to me, and of course you wouldn’t want someone to be uncomfortable in a recording,” he said.
Poss said he thinks the jungle of microphones, mixing boards and isolation booths intimidated Byrd.
“It was a little bit of an alien environment,” he said.
With a professional studio out of the question, Poss now had to find a place where Byrd would be more comfortable, a place where he spent a lot of time.
For Byrd, an infamous workaholic, that place was his Senate office. So that’s where Poss decided to hold the recording sessions.
He tapped Bias recording engineer Bill McElroy to make it happen.
“I asked him to build a portable console that would be stripped down and unobtrusive. I guess the idea was to have the recording process be as natural as possible,” Poss said.
McElroy built a two-track recording unit and set it up in Byrd’s conference room.
With only two tracks to record on – one for the left stereo channel and another for the right – the band recorded the album completely live. They couldn’t go back and overdub any flubbed parts. If someone messed up, everyone had to redo the song.
“What went on there, that’s what you had,” Gilliam, the bass player, said. “It put the pressure on.”
Poss said, “They basically stood in a circle, performing live, just as though they were playing in his living room.”
Lawson said, “We didn’t practice or anything until we got to the Capitol building.”
Lawson said Byrd had some trouble getting started so he suggested the senator warm up with a “Georgia shuffle,” where fiddlers run their bow over the strings in rhythm for a song intro.
He said the recording went smoothly after that, except for some false starts and a few other typical studio mishaps.
“If he got in a big way of fiddling, his bow might hit the microphone,” Lawson said.
The senator soon grew accustomed to his new band, and the music fell into place.
“He was really open and very observant and picked it up immediately,” Lawson said. “To be honest, I was really surprised at how well he played old-time fiddle. He had drive, authority and passion.”
He said Byrd’s singing wasn’t anything to be ashamed of either.
“He would sing with the same gusto that he played with. It was a lot of fun,” Lawson said.
Banjo picker Bailey said he also was impressed by Byrd’s knowledge of old-time music.
He said Byrd knew lyrics to songs that most musicians only know as instrumental numbers, like “Cumberland Gap.” And if the senator knew the words, he would sing them all.
“If a song had 15 verses, that’s what he did,” Bailey said. “He looked at a song as a work and that’s what he would do. He would cover the whole thing.
“His heart and soul were in old-time numbers,” he said.
Poss remembers recording the album was “amazingly fun” and said Byrd’s enthusiasm for his music infected everyone involved.
“He wore everybody out,” Poss said.
“Musicians typically tend to like to warm up a little bit to limber up, but not too much because they don’t want to lose that edge. Sen. Byrd was different. The more he rehearsed, the more he wanted to rehearse.”
Byrd on tour
After the record was finished and released, Byrd and his band went on a short promotional tour.
One of the first stops was at Discount Records and Books, a record store in Washington, D.C. Byrd gave an in-store performance and signed records for fans.
“I remember showing up. It was a scene like I’d never seen,” Poss said. “The store was mobbed, the street was just jammed with cars and people lined up around the block.”
The tour also included stops on the hit variety show “Hee Haw” and the “Grand Ole Opry.” Byrd’s appearance marked the Opry’s second-ever national broadcast, shown then on PBS.
Poss, Gilliam and Bailey accompanied Byrd on his trip to Nashville.
“It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Poss said.
Byrd listened to AM broadcasts of the Opry as a child, and sawing his fiddle on its hallowed stage was a lifelong dream.
But when his moment in the spotlight came, Poss said the senator was quite nervous. “That quickly went away because of what goes on backstage at the Opry,” Poss said.
Byrd and his band hung out in Opry legend Roy Acuff’s dressing room that night. As country music stars like Minnie Pearl and fellow West Virginian Little Jimmie Dickens stopped by to chat, his nerves started to calm.
“They welcomed him, not as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, but as a fellow artist. They really made him feel right at home,” Poss said.
“I almost had the feeling he was ready to go on the road.”
Gilliam remembers stopping at a restaurant after their Opry performance. It was about 3 a.m.
“He asked me, ‘How old are you, Spider?’ “Gilliam said. The bass player was 38 at the time. Byrd was in his late 50s.
“He told me, ‘If I was your age, I’d give up my seat in the Senate and do this for a living,'” Gilliam remembered. “I thought, ‘Yes, sir. And you would flat starve to death.'”
While Byrd stuck to his day job, he continued to wow D.C. crowds with his playing.
Gilliam said the senator often invited him and Bailey to Capitol Hill get-togethers, and even to the National Democratic Convention a time or two. Lawson often couldn’t make the performances, since he was on the road with the Gentlemen and later his band Quicksilver.
Gilliam said he saw Byrd play so long and so hard that he wore the hide off his fingers.
But even that wouldn’t stop the senator from sawing the strings.
“He’d bandage those things up and keep on going. One of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen. He’d work all day and beat on that fiddle all night if he could,” Gilliam said.
But Poss said there was never talk of doing another album.
“I think he understood that this was something he needed to do and this wasn’t his career,” he said. “I think that was kind of a mission accomplished.”
Still the record producer, who went on to found Sugar Hill Records and sign artists like Nickel Creek, Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs, said he’s proud of his work with Byrd.
Recently, he and Jabbour wrote a new set of liner notes for “Mountain Fiddler’s” first CD release.
“It’s great,” he said. “I was delighted to hear how well it stood up, and I think that was his goal. The music had already stood the test, and I think his recordings will stand the test of time.”
Poss said, “He had put as much work into this as he did anything else in his life.”
“Mountain Fiddler” is now available for sale at www.countysales.com. The album will appear in music stores and online in a couple of weeks.