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Old-Time Music Gateways: Iron Mountain String Band

When I was finding my way into old-time music, there were a few seminal moments I can remember thinking, "This is the stuff." Like my remembrance of my fist time hearing this music live at the hands of David Bass and the Forge Mountain Diggers, "Old-Time Music Gateways" will be a recurring feature focused on highlighting my early forays into this musical style. 
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It was for the tracks by Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb and Lee Sexton that I bought the Smithsonian Folkways compilation "Classic Old-Time Music." Those names had been recommended as good sources of different banjo playing than the likes of Earl Scruggs. But those three old-time pickers would have to wait because it was the very first track that grabbed me.

The sudden burst of driving fiddle almost startled me on the recording of "Sugar Hill," by the Iron Mountain String Band. The lilting banjo tickled my ears, and the nasally singing made me smile in approval. This was good stuff.

At the time, I still didn't know the difference between Bluegrass and old-time music. It seems stupid to me now, but I didn't realize the reference to "Old-Time Music" in the title of the album was to an actual style of music. To my neophyte mind, if it had banjo and sounded hilly-billyish, it was Bluegrass. The truth was right there on the label.

That compilation still ranks as one of my favorite collections of old-time tunes, but it was the Iron Mountain String Band that kept getting repeat plays on my car stereo.

Caleb Finch on fiddle and Eric Davidson on banjo made up the heart of the band throughout its more than 40 years of activity. In the early days, Peggy Haine played guitar and sang for the group, whereas later it was Brooke Moyer. There are some reports that the band is still together, but it's difficult to know how recent those reports are.

Finch and Davidson started making field recordings of Southern Appalachian musicians in the 1950s, primarily those in Grayson and Carroll counties, Virginia, such as Wade Ward and Glen Smith. Those recordings became the basis for a series of albums published by Folkways.

The Iron Mountain String Band was founded in 1963, in New York City, and began making its own Folkways albums 10 years later. Finch and Davidson moved to Southern California in the 1970s and recorded an album as recently as 2001.

Their version of "Sugar Hill" is still my favorite. I later purchased an album recorded in the late 1990s, but it didn't come close to capturing the raw energy I heard on that compilation. When it came time for me to learn to play "Sugar Hill," I patterned the B part after Davidson's playing. Now, if only I could get my fiddling of the tune to sound like Finch's. To me, that recording exemplifies the fun of old-time music.

The Iron Mountain String Band discography:


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