The Coon Creek Girls
Lily May, Rosie & Susie
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
A musical genre isn’t born overnight. We tend to distill histories of music to some lowest common denominator when we can, and the farther removed you are from the genre, the lower the denominator.
Rock ‘n’ Roll? Elvis, the King, of course. Rock was born when Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. That’s the simple answer, but most anyone who was around back then knows it wasn’t that simple. The same is true about the “English invasion”
in the ’60’s. The first group that comes to mind is The Beatles, but they were just one of the most popular of many English bands that surged onto the rock scene.
When our ancestors started settling here they brought music with them. Some strains of that can still be clearly heard today, especially in the music of Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson, to name just two. Two names generally stand out when we start thinking about the histories of bluegrass and country music, and you can throw in old-time and folk to a great extent, too.
Jimmie Rodgers was on the road playing music by 1900, even though he wasn’t yet a teenager. Who knows what would have happened if his father hadn’t found him and brought him home. By 1927 Rodgers was back performing as well as working for the railroads and combating tuberculosis. Six years later he was dead, but his legacy continues today. Many country stars, including Ernest Tubb, pointed to him as a primary influence in their music. When Mr. Monroe auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry, one of the numbers he performed was Rodger’s “Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel #8),” recorded by Rodgers in 1931.
Another seminal influence was the Carter Family. They started recording in 1927 with the original trio disbanding in 1936. Various combinations of Carters stayed active for decades after that. If you look at the list of titles by the Carter Family and Rodgers you’ll see many songs that are sung and recorded even today. If you dig a little, you’ll also discover that some of them were composed by them (the Carters and Rodgers), but others emanated from traditional songs sung for generations that they put their names to.
While the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers are two of the most famous names of that early era, they most certainly were not alone. One of the groups that influenced (and still does) generations of country and bluegrass musicians was the Coon Creek Girls (not to be confused with the New Coon Creek Girls, a much later group). Centered on Lily May Ledford (1917-1985), the original group was called the “Red River Ramblers” and consisted of Lily May, older sister Rosie and brother Coyen, joined by a neighbor, Morgan Skidmore. They performed across several states playing songs like “John Hardy,” “Sourwood Mountain” and “Pretty Polly.” Do those sound familiar?
In 1935 Lily May caught the attention of John Lair and he brought her to the WLS Barn Dance, leaving the rest of the band to go home to Kentucky. There she joined Red Foley, Lula Belle and Scotty Wiseman and a host of other still-famous performers. Rosie rejoined her in 1937 and later that year Lair relocated the Ledfords and a number of performers to Cincinnati. There Lair introduced them to Esther “Violet” Koehler and Evelyn “Daisy” Lange. None of the girls had ever heard of, let alone been near, Coon Creek but Lair dreamed up the name because he thought it sounded “country.” By 1939 they were performing for two of their fans, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who were entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Time brought change, as it always does. This CD is a reunion of Lily May and sisters Rosie and Susie, recorded in the 1960s at a time when there was some renewed activity of the Coon Creek Girls during the folk music hey-day.
Their verbal music has an old-time sound while the instrumentation can be described as old-time or perhaps mountain music. Compare their version of “East Virginia Blues” to a 1992 Country Gentlemen version and then to a Carter Family version. It’s clear the music of the Coon Creek Girls remained traditional, roots music without a nod to the newer sounds of bluegrass. Two staples of Dr. Ralph’s repertoire are “Little Birdie” and “Pretty Polly.” The Girls’ version of “Little Birdie” is a close match to Dr. Ralph’s and sparks the comparison of their music to his “mountain” music form of bluegrass. The two versions of “Pretty Polly” differ some in the lyrics but they are still the same song. The lyrics of many of these roots songs are as varied as snowflakes and each performer’s version depends on what they’ve heard through the years rather than some lead sheet filed away in a cabinet.
While it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint where today’s performers first heard their versions of the songs the Coon Creek Girls were doing back in the ’30’s, ’40’s and 50’s, it’s probable many of them are familiar with the Girls’ music and count them as an influence. “Wild Bill Jones” has been recorded by a multitude of people from Dock Boggs to Alison Krauss. On this CD it’s a haunting song, only Lily May accompanying herself on the banjo as she does on “Red Rocking Chair.” “Hawk Caught the Chicken and Gone” is an excellent example of an old-time, frailing banjo. It’s a little rough in a couple of places and also serves as an example of a fairly common description of old-time music that comes from many bluegrass musicians: it sounds like the same eight bars of music played over and over fifty times. Old time musicians will quickly jump into that argument, of course, but you can judge for yourself.
A good example of the three sisters singing and playing together is “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat.” If you consider the environment they played in six decades ago you can understand the appeal of this song. (And if you want to see a way out in left field, modern day version, check out Split Lip Rayfield.)
If you’re into the history of bluegrass and country music or love that old-time sound, you’ll certainly applaud the release of these tracks.