Hamper McBee was to folk music what Ray Hicks, the North Carolina storyteller, was to story telling; a throwback, a miner of the past, a well spring of folk history that bucks modern convention. Hicks gained renown as the teller of the Jack Tales, stories long told in the Appalachian Mountians that date back to the 18th century. McBee, from Tennessee, is his musical equivalent – an a cappella balladeer, he gained some measure of fame wrapping his raspy voice around centuries old folk ballads.
History shows McBee to be quite a character – a moonshiner, bawdy carouser, drinker, jack of all trades, Army veteran, and storyteller. This recording, made in 1977 and 1978 during the filming of the 30 minute documentary Raw Mash, is McBee’s first release in 30 years.
The 29 tracks on The Good Old Fashioned Way alternate between McBee’s renditions of storied folk ballads like “Black Jack Davy,” “Jack of Diamonds,” and “Shady Grove,” and his ruminations on any number of topics. While the songs do show McBee’s strength as a balladeer, the ruminations prove to be the more enjoyable feature of the record. There are true laugh out loud moments, including McBee’s good-natured reminiscence of a favorite office of the law who routinely arrested him for being drunk, drinking moonshine, and drinking on Sundays, as well as his thoughts on religion and the music coming out of Nashville. .
These stories prove that an afternoon across the table from Hamper McBee, whether over a cup of coffee or a quart of shine, would truly be an afternoon well spent. The Good Old Fashioned Way is a snapshot of a musical tradition gone by the way side. Admittedly, McBee’s singing style is an acquired taste, but those interested in the old Southern way of singing and storytelling should definitely take a listen.
The Good Old Fashioned Way is out now on Drag City Records.