The Lost Tribe of Country Music is an exceptional, multi-generational, multi-racial group of musicians and dancers who are deeply rooted in and committed to the traditions that they have learned from past masters and made their own. Blending Old Time Appalachian, Bluegrass, Blues, Cajun, Creole, Swing and other elements of American Country music, the members of The Lost Tribe have come together to create a powerful and exciting live stage event that shares the remarkable story of the origins and evolution of Country music and its continued power and vitality in the 21st Century.
Featuring some of the most important and heralded young African-American and white artists on the scene today, along with elders who have carried on and contributed to the music for decades, The Lost Tribe reclaims the depth, diversity and spirit of a musical heritage that has too often been forgotten or misrepresented by inaccurate stereotypes. American rural music, Country music, in its diverse styles, its beauty and energy, was built upon the blend of Celtic music from the British Isles with sophisticated rhythms and new scales from Africa along with elements of Native American music and dance. Real Country Music has always carried the verities of the human experience from generation to generation. Each generation has made its mark upon the music, and the music upon its practitioners. The artists of The Lost Tribe carry on and make their own contributions to a tradition of timeless music that is as powerful, moving and innovative for this generation as it was for those who developed and carried it before them.
A good portion of Country music, in all its antecedents and subgenres, is dance music. The Lost Tribe of Country Music includes a group of extraordinary dancers who bring to the stage dance styles from Africa, the British Isles, the Appalachian Mountains, the bayous of Southwest Louisiana, the juke joints and honky-tonks of the rural South. Swing and Cajun couple dancing, along with percussive dance styles from the British Isles and Southern Appalachia, are mixed with African-American tap and body percussion. The grooves are established with fiddles, Cajun accordion, banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin, harmonica and the African akonting—an ancestor of the banjo. The vocal styles range from African call and response, ancient ballads and expressive blues to intense hillbilly harmonies. The dancers and musicians obviously have a lot of fun in performance and readily share their joy with the audience.
What is The Lost Tribe of Country Music all about? It is about music, real Country music. It is about keeping the flame burning, with tradition lighting the way for the creative endeavors of yet another generation of artists. The Lost Tribe takes you off the well-beaten commercial music industry highway and leads you down the back roads into the isolated regions of the rural South where the music developed as an essential part of everyday life. In spite of the racial and economic inequities imposed upon the society over two centuries, white and black musicians shared music and dance as a way to overcome life’s difficulties and celebrate its joys. In the past, the music proved more powerful than the rules of “Jim Crow,” transcending racial and economic injustice. This interaction and sharing led to the creative explosion in American music, from Hillbilly to Blues, Cajun, Swing, Jazz and on to Rock ‘n Roll, Hip Hop and the Pop music that streams from radios and computers across the globe today. It all came from Country music.
The Lost Tribe of Country Music is not an exercise in nostalgia. It is not an attempt to recreate or reproduce the past, but, rather, to continue on a creative journey that is informed by what has too often been forgotten. The music evolved over time as rural musicians encountered new influences and innovations. The artists of The Lost Tribe, familiar with the variety of styles and techniques that unfolded over time and across the rural South, use this rich palette as a resource to make music that borrows, honors and explores these traditions making music that seems contemporary and relevant. Let’s look at a few examples of The Lost Tribe’s arrangements to see how this plays out in performance:
A solo fiddle, playing a traditional mountain tune to a hip hop bass groove provides the music for a dance piece that incorporates Afro-American, Celtic and modern dance techniques;
An ancient Mardi Gras song, sung in Creole French with Appalachian style harmonies in the call and response, combines diatonic accordion and hillbilly fiddle with a rockabilly bass line and Celtic chord patterns on guitar;
A clawhammer banjo plays an old Appalachian piece called “Chinkapin Pie” while, on either side of the banjo player, two body percussionists conduct a Hambone competition, developing complex rhythms along with a performance that is as fun to watch as it is to hear;
A song that came to black playgrounds in Mississippi by way of Africa, sung a capella, first in unison, then in Appalachian harmony with a Creole rhythmic tag, develops into a groove with two fiddles, African and Afro-American percussion and Creole style bass;
A song played on the fiddle and sung by a sixty-year-old man who learned it, when he was twenty, from a seventy-year-old man who had learned it from a black bluesman when he was fifteen. The song is accompanied by harmony vocals, bass and a guitar that begins to lure the fiddle into a conversation with its funk/hip-hop riffs and groove.
With arrangements like these, the musicians and dancers of the Lost Tribe retain a sense of discovery in what they have learned, seeking not to go back in time, but to bring across time the depth, power and joy they find in the marrow of Country music.
So what is Country music? For most people, Country music is an industrially produced brand of commercial music that has its corporate headquarters in Nashville. But how many of us consider that Country music developed over two hundred years is a product of the lives and communities of rural folks from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds? These are the people, black and white, who helped build America, and they were making Country music as a part of everyday life well before anyone had the idea that music could be packaged and marketed as a commodity. Though the Anglo-Celtic roots are often recognized, we too often forget that Country music would not exist without the contributions of African musicians and would not have evolved as it did without the traditions and innovations introduced by African-American musicians, including the banjo, percussive dance and the blues.
The true roots of Country music, along with the stories of the men and women at the heart of its creation and evolution, reflect the story of America. Celtic immigrants brought their fiddles, reels and other dances as well as their illegal stills and whiskey-making skills from Scotland and Ireland. Africans and their descendants, during and after their enslavement, introduced new rhythms and musical forms. They enriched the music of the European-bred culture with new instruments like the banjo, and from their own ancient tones developed and shared the Blues in its many varieties. The music born in the black churches (Gospel, Spirituals), offered a transcendence of pain and injustice, just as the work songs and field hollers (another African tradition), eased long days of hard toil. Both the poor whites and blacks sang, and their songs are full of laughter, tears and blood and they tell powerful stories of life’s joys and struggles. In spite of the institutionalized racism that was imposed to divide and exploit the poor, the musicians of both races often forged deep bonds. The music was what mattered to them.
There are many examples of musicians defying the laws of “Jim Crow,” the apartheid that dominated the social and political systems in the southern states for a century after the abolition of slavery. Musicians, black and white, in small isolated mountain communities or in the coal mining camps or those of laborers laying track for the railroads, shared their music and their lives. Black musicians had been playing the fiddle since colonial times. Thomas Jefferson’s favorite fiddler was a black man; Daniel Boone’s friend and hunting partner, Monk Estill, fiddled for dances in Kentucky’s first pioneer communities and became a free man for his heroism at the battle of Little Mountain in 1782. White musicians later adopted the banjo and the guitar that black workers brought into the mountains after Reconstruction. Young white musicians like Hobart Smith were captivated by the blues they heard being played around campfires by black railroad workers. Music proved more powerful than prejudice and injustice.
The music that developed in the southern Appalachians was both witness to the past and parent to the future. This music recalls suffering even as it manifests hope, humor and the joy of living. Black musicians were significant in the early years of the new commercial “Hillbilly Music” and its classic recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s. Jim Booker, the legendary fiddler for Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, was black; Booker does not appear in the group’s publicity photos. This was the record company’s decision. They preferred not to mix up the categories they had established as a marketing strategy: “hillbilly” for white Country music, “race” records for black Country music. The Allen Brothers, first to record the now standard bluegrass song “Salty Dog,” were white, but the industry thought they sounded black and marketed them in the “race” category.
The Carter Family, the first big stars of commercial Country Music, scoured the backwoods of the upland South for traditional songs. They sold millions of records from the 1920s through the 1940s. The industry that so richly profited from this success refused to acknowledge that Lesley Riddle was indispensable to the now classic repertoire of Country music compiled by his good friend A.P. Carter. Lesley Riddle was a black guitarist and singer from East Tennessee. He was a “song-catcher,” blessed with an extraordinary musical memory. Before the advent of portable recording equipment, it was Riddle who served as a human tape recorder for the musical discoveries of A.P. Carter. Riddle also brought Carter into African-American communities and churches to meet people and learn their music. Against all the rules of the segregated South, the two friends traveled widely together in the 1920s and ‘30s, conducting themselves as if the society in which they lived was not poisoned by institutionalized racism. To share their love for and fascination with the music, the two men spent weeks at a time at each other’s homes. Maybelle Carter acknowledged that her famous and influential guitar style—“the Carter Scratch”—owed a great deal to what she learned while playing music with Mr. Riddle.
The other great star of the era, Country music legend Jimmy Rodgers, sang the blues that he’d heard amongst his black neighbors and co-workers (he worked for a time on the railroad and was called “The Singing Brakeman”) in Mississippi and later in the Upland South. Rodgers sold millions of records even during the Depression. Some of his recordings included arrangements with jazz ensembles; Louis Armstrong was featured on some of Rodger’s hits. The legendary bluesman Howlin’ Wolf declared Rodgers his childhood hero, saying “Jimmy Rodgers played white-boy blues before it was called Country.”
Bill Monroe, often called “the Father of Bluegrass” for his revolutionary 1945 recordings, had learned most of his music decades earlier from traditional musicians. He acknowledged his debt to Arnold Schultz, another legendary figure amongst Kentucky musicians. Schultz, who was black, was an innovative fiddler and guitar player who influenced not only Monroe, but also Merle Travis and Ike Everly. Everly was the father of the Everly Brothers, whose harmonies would be the model for a couple of Liverpool lads named John Lennon and Paul McCartney. While playing for radio shows throughout the South in the 1930s and ‘40s, Monroe heard other artists from whom he borrowed freely. He was especially struck by the music of black Gospel quartets, such as the Golden Gate Quartet (from Virginia), whose a capella harmonies and repertoire originated in African-American churches and communities. Monroe imitated the quartets’ harmonies and borrowed much from their repertoire; later he wrote his own songs in a similar style. To this day “Gospel Songs” and four-part vocal harmonies remain a distinctive and defining element in Bluegrass music. In Southwest Louisiana, Cajuns (Acadians) exiled from Canada in the 18th century played music with Creole (French speaking blacks) and Native American musicians. Fiddler Dennis McGee (Cajun) and accordionist Amade Ardoin (Creole) made incredibly intense and beautiful music throughout the 1930s.
Hank Williams, during the 1940s, learned a great deal, as he freely acknowledged, from Tee-Tot, a black musician who sang and played in the streets of Montgomery, Alabama with the future Country music icon. Elvis Presley’s first two recordings were “That’s All Right Mama”—a jump blues from the black bluesman Arthur Crudup—and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, composed by Bill Monroe. Elvis transformed Monroe’s country waltz by infusing it with the same ferocious rhythms that drove Crudup’s song. Ray Charles, one of the definitive stars of R&B, grew up in the rural South and always claimed to have been nourished on Country music. In the 1960s, as an already established star, he recorded a classic Country album that beautifully presents the kinship of Country music and the Blues. A number of black Blues stars, among them the great innovator Otis Rush, considered themselves country musicians before establishing their careers in electric Blues. Johnny Cash, one of the pioneers of the explosion of Rockabilly music in Memphis in the 1950s (he later married into the Carter Family), blended Country music with African-American rhythms throughout his career, especially in songs like “Get Rhythm.” James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul” and originator of Funk, grew up listening to his father play old-time Country tunes and songs on the banjo.
The Country music industry, like many entities that have wielded economic or political power in America, found racism a convenient tool to further its corporate interests. And so the essential contributions of African-American musicians in the evolution of traditional and early Country music were minimized or erased. Those marketing the music preferred to present Country music, and such offshoots as Rockabilly, with an Anglo-Saxon face; they figured that Elvis would sell better than Arthur Crudup, just as the Rock moguls later on figured that the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton could sell more records than Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters.
Now, in the 21st century, there are still artists of all races who carry on music they have learned from traditional musicians of previous generations. They share an appreciation of the beauty and power of the traditional rural music that gave birth to commercial Country and Rock, among other popular genres. They find in this music a profound humanity that transcends the racial boundaries that were imposed by political and economic interests. While learning from musicians of previous generations, today's artists have come to recognize the deep connection between music and life.
The Lost Tribe of Country Music carry on these traditions, and all they encompass, as their mentors had before them. Together, they share with their audience the joy, power and jubilation of this music and dance in a unique and exhilarating concert experience.