It is a story made in Hollywood, but then done bluegrass style:
Just before he died, a famous fiddle player sat down and recorded hours of music for his son. The son takes the box and stores it away. Thirty years after the fiddle player dies, the son finds the box of tapes in a closet and realizes he is sitting on a box of artistic treasure. Although he’s not made music in years, the son, also a fiddle player, decides to cut an album using some of the tunes and it becomes a big hit.
The fiddler was Paul Warren, of perhaps the greatest bluegrass band of all time, Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. And the son, Johnny, a talented musician in his own right, knew he had to do something.
“My main reason for doing this was, when my dad was sick, he wanted to keep these tunes from being lost, and I wanted to pay tribute to my dad,” Warren said. “I’m sure he took some songs to the grave with him, but I think he put these down so maybe I’d record them one day. It is a unique style, and a unique sound. This music is bigger than my dad or myself. I don’t want this sound to die. If people hear it, and play it, it will keep it alive.”
The resulting project was A Tribute to Fiddlin’ Paul Warren, and it quickly sold through two pressings after its release in late 2009. But it was not a slam dunk deal at the time of discovery.
When Johnny Warren found the tapes, they looked fragile, and he did not own a reel-to-reel machine to play them on. He called his old friend and collaborator, banjo player Charlie Cushman, who sent him to Beaverwood Studio in Nashville, TN, where the tapes were restored and put onto a master disk. He started listening to the tunes and the memories of dozens of obscure fiddle tunes came flooding back.
There were tunes familiar to some older listeners, but for many folks, A Tribute was an introduction to music that went back to the early 20th century or maybe farther. Cuts such as “Buck Creek Gal,” “Katy Hill,” and “Ole Joe” may have been recognizable, but “Sugar in My Coffee-O,” “Two Hog Weeds and One Stalk of Corn,” and “Pretty Girl Goin’ to Milk a Cow” were probably not.
As the project evolved, they decided to bring in other contributors to include a link to each of the original Foggy Mountain Boys. Earl Scruggs, Curly Seckler, Marty Stuart, Tim Graves, and Kent Blanton are all special guests. Scruggs’ appearance was particularly historic.
“We wanted Earl to play ‘Buck Creek Gal’ from the Carnegie Hall album, and so on that song, Johnny is playing his dad’s fiddle and Earl’s playing his banjo ? so those two instruments were back in the same room again after all those years,” Cushman said.
It was said that Paul Warren was a man of a thousand fiddle tunes ? but he never got to showcase them outside the bands of others.
“Dad never got to do his own recording, that was the policy of Lester and Earl at that time, that they didn’t allow band members to do individual projects,” Johnny Warren said. “He is on 250 recordings, but none of them are his own. There is some stuff he did on live shows that was never recorded, and things I heard him play that he never played out anywhere.”
The story could have ended with the success of A Tribute, which Johnny Warren says is still selling well, almost two years after its release. But neither he nor Cushman felt the job was complete. “There was more stuff we wanted to get out,” Warren said.
And so, a Fall 2011 release is planned for A Tribute to Fiddlin’ Paul Warren: Volume 2. …
While Warren was out to preserve old songs, he insists the album isn’t just the titles.
“Dad was a stylist; you could listen to the radio and tell who it was when a song he played on came on,” Johnny said. “A lot of fiddlers today, they’re really good, but you can’t tell who it is playing –– a lot of it sounds alike. Dad’s style was a peppy, happy style that came out of his soul. You can see it in those Flatt and Scruggs TV show DVDs that are out now. [Former promoter] Lance LeRoy once said that Dad was a Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith with overdrive.”
Paul Warren had several influences growing up and had to put a lot of effort out just to be able to play his instrument. Born in 1918, he started playing at age thirteen, sneaking his father’s fiddle out of a drawer in the house when no one was around. Warren’s family did not have a radio, so he would ride his bike to a neighbor’s house, listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and then hum the tunes he heard all the way back on the ride home, to get them in his brain so he could transfer them to the fiddle.
Warren said that Volume 2 is likely the last of the tribute albums. But he hopes that the attention the two CDs are warranting will correct an oversight ? some would say an injustice ? in bluegrass music history.
“Paul Warren and Jake Tullock [bass] are not in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. They are the only two Foggy Mountain Boys left out, and that bugs me. Flatt & Scruggs was to me the greatest bluegrass band of all time and the whole band should be there. I think most folks would be surprised to know that. When you hear the fiddle breaks from those old tunes, you know that Paul and Jake were just as innovative on their instruments as anyone in the band. That stuff is classic. The problem is that that stuff will get away, people will forget. It would be like leaving one of the Beatles out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dad was real humble, and I am sure it wouldn’t be a big deal to him, but I think he deserves to be there.”
[For CD ordering information, please contact Johnny Warren at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
[For the full text of this article, as well as a transcription of the tune "Old Joe Can't Play the fiddle," purchase the Fall 2011 issue.]
[Michael Brantley is a photographer, writer, and “wannabe” banjoist and fiddler. Despite living in North Carolina, where you can throw a shoe in any direction and hit a picker –– and many people do –– the learning curve has been steep. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in English/creative writing. He can be reached at email@example.com.]