Review: Senator Robert Byrd – Mountain Fiddler

To me, it’s hardly surprising that a Senator from West Virginia would release a fiddle album; politicians will do most anything to get noticed. Rather, what’s surprising to me after several hour in my CD player is that this is an interesting and fun fiddle album- unlike most of what emerges from the average Senator, this album bears repeated hearings. The story is pretty simple: Alan Jabbour, the noted director of the American Folklife Center, had recorded Byrd for the Library of Congress Archives, and thought he was good enough to make an album. Doyle Lawson (on guitar) and two other musicians associated with the Country Gentleman backed up the Senator and the album was eventually made in his Senate offices, where Byrd felt most comfortable- making this, it seems, the only commercial musical album ever recorded in the US Capitol.

It gets better: not only does Byrd play bouncy versions of standards like “Forked Deer” and “Cumberland Gap,” but he also sings between the fiddle lines, and offers short introductions to the tunes, telling us where he learned it or some historical background. As a singer, well, he was no Jimmie Davis (former governor of Louisiana and a genuine country music star) but you get the idea of the tune and it’s nothing if not authentic. I especially liked the tunes that Byrd learned in his youth, as they felt both historically authentic and also emotional- you get the sense that it matters to Byrd that the listener understands this music as part of a proud heritage.

“Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die”

There are, of course, more polished and technically accomplished fiddle albums out there, but Senator Byrd’s album is full of personality and charisma, and some good picking and fiddling too.

County Records 2010

Neal Loevinger

Neal Loevinger is a hospital chaplain who loves things that start with the letter B, like bluegrass, bourbon, bikes and books. He is the proud father of two kids who may yet learn to appreciate bluegrass like he does.

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