Black Bear On The Mountain
“I first met Fred Coon through a great old-time mandolin and guitar player named Les Preston. Les literally taught me hundreds of tunes and introduced me to a young, and at that time, widely unknown banjo player named Adam Hurt. When Les moved to Phoenix, AZ, our picking days became limited to visits from him and his wife Lou Ann whenever they made it back out to San Diego. Unfortunately Les died soon after- suddenly, and at a young age. I drove out to Phoenix for the memorial service, and it was there that I met both Fred and Bill Burke. That day Fred taught me a tune called “Black Bear on the Mountain”, which he learned first from JP Fraley. I was an immediate fan not only because of his fantastic banjo playing, but also because JP was one of my favorite fiddlers; Fred’s connection intrigued me.
I eventually learned that Fred hadn’t played much since his teens and twenties, which he spent traveling throughout Appalachia collecting tunes from and playing with the likes of JP Fraley, Aunt Jenny Wilson, John Hilt, Frank George, Tab Ward, Winfred Moore, Wade Ward, Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed, Oscar Wright, Doc Watson, and many others. Having not played often in his adult life, and having declared that day we met that he might not ever play again with Les gone, Fred seemed to me a barely cracked time capsule.
Fred and Bill Burke had recorded for others and performed live together at various events for quite some time, but with Bill living in Flagstaff (and despite much encouragement from friends) they hadn’t seriously considered recording for themselves. This changed suddenly a little over a year ago when they accepted an invitation to conduct old-time banjo workshops and to perform at the 27th Illawara Folk Festival in Bulli, NSW, Australia. The audience response at the festival was so great that these two fine musicians were finally persuaded to spend time in the studio for a CD of their own.
Listening to this CD takes me back to my childhood in east TN, and the “mountain music” I sometimes heard there. It is music that makes me stop and listen because it seems to speak about something important I’ve always known but forgotten. Most of the tracks are solos, either banjo or mandolin. Occasionally Fred sings or Bill plays guitar or banjo. Sometimes they play together in various instrumental configurations. Bill, a well-respected luthier, plays on mandolins and a guitar he crafted himself. The liner notes relay rich stories of the tunes and how Fred and Bill learned them, as well as stories about the people they learned them from.
The tunes themselves are a mixture of 19 well-known standards brought once again to new life (Angeline the Baker, Kitchen Girl, June Apple), lesser-known tunes held captive by Fred’s until-now-barely-cracked time capsule (The Loaded Lion, Aunt Jenny’s On Top of Old Smokey), an Irish air (Pretty Maid), and a tune from early blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver (Smoke Town Strut). Aside from the title track, two of my favorites are Bonaparte Crossin’ the Rhine and Elk River Blues, both featuring Fred and Bill together playing banjo and mandolin, respectively.
I admit Fred is my friend and I’m therefore biased- nonetheless, I must say this CD is a gem. Like the tunes themselves, after hearing the album it took me a moment to remember that it hadn’t always existed. Listen to it while relaxing, when you have time to really take it in. Beth Moscow” Thanks Beth!