Back in 1937, with 500,000 acres of Appalachia about to become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the federal government dispatched Joseph Sargent Hall (1906-92) to document the local folklife. In the years that followed, Hall recorded the speech, stories, and music of the Smokies, including songs—“On Top of Old Smoky” (performed on this new compilation by Carol Elizabeth Jones), “Man of Constant Sorrow” (John Lilly), and “Goin’ Down This Road Feelin’ Bad” (Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade)—that remain at the center of our inheritance as Americans.
There were no stars in Hall’s recordings, just amateurs playing songs they loved. In that spirit, On Top of Old Smoky—the third album in its series of recreating songs performed by Smoky Mountain residents at the time of the development of a national park—focuses on simple, direct folk versions that hew close to the heart of these tunes. Dolly Parton sings “Little Rosewood Casket” in an arrangement by her mother; Bryan Sutton pays homage to the White Oak String Band with a solo “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home;” Dom Flemons adds harmonica and bones to Martin Simpson’s spare, chilling “John Hardy.”
With 23 songs on this album, there’s no shortage of smaller, quieter highlights, like Courtney Hartman’s guitar-and-banjo duo with Tony Trischka, David Holt’s evocation of Doc and Merle Watson, and Ed Snodderly and Eugene Wolf’s tribute to the great brother duets of the 1930s. But it’s Hall who emerges as the album’s unlikely hero, having the foresight to honor the families whose traditions survived the creation of a park that took their land.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.