There are no words to describe my excitement about the third release on our Twos & Fews recording imprint, out June 29. Recorded by the late, peerless country music scholar Charles K. Wolfe and the filmmaker Sol Korine in late ’77 and early ’78, “The Good Old-Fashioned Way: Hamper McBee of Monteagle, Tennessee” may well be this year’s best record of unaccompanied singing and also its most inexhaustibly hilarious comedy album.
I had only heard of the moonshiner, carnival barker, singer and raconteur Hamper McBee (who was first recorded by Guy Carawan and ended up an impossibly scarce Prestige LP called “Cumberland Moonshiner” in 1965) in passing – just as a subject of one of Korine’s films I had never seen – until I met Sol himself through his filmmaking son Harmony. Knowing my interest in those folkloric films of his dad’s, made with Blaine Dunlap in the ’70s, Harmony had a screening of Sol and Blaine’s “Raw Mash” profile of Hamper in his Nashville home, and it rendered me speechless. There’s no other way to say it: Hamper was an absolute original. His clothes; his mustache and pompadour; his lusty dedication to booze, cigarettes, and light cussing (“goddamn” and “hell” being foremost in his lexicon); his keen intelligence and creative grace (sincerely) sharing space in his conversation and repertoire with hysterically bizarre, irreverent, and filthy songs and tales from a life spent on the carnival circuit, at the moonshine still, in the Wauhatchie railroad yards, in the back of Sheriff Bill Malone’s patrol car, and as Hamper McBee.
Wolfe and Korine père‘s recordings were originally momentarily issued on a Rounder LP, also entitled “Raw Mash,” to accompany the release of the film, but have been out of print for over 30 years. With Sol’s blessing and the permission of Wolfe’s widow, Mary Dean Wolfe, and Hamper’s son Troy McBee and his family, I was honored by the chance to do a record and thrilled to introduce Harmony’s and my generation to Hamper. Judging by the speed with which his aphorisms, witticisms, and vulgarities have been adopted by my gang of friends, I think he’ll be well received.
What follows is Charles Wolfe’s essay on Hamper McBee that accompanied the original Rounder LP and which we reprint in “The Good Old-Fashioned Way.” All photos are used courtesy of Blaine Dunlap, except that on the record cover above. Troy sent it to Harmony, writing that “I do have a very good photo of Dad chained to a pole in a bar. He gave it to my mom for the reason he didn’t make it home that weekend.” Hamper died in 1998, cut down not by booze, but by lung cancer. Well, hell. Goddamn.
(I’d write R.I.P. or some such thing but, as Hamper said, “these goddamn churchpeople make me madder than a goddamn and the goddamn people are out here robbin and stealin.”)
“I just like them old songs better.”
If you don’t know anything about Hamper, you might start by learning that he had for some years been recognized as one of the better singers of unaccompanied songs and ballads. Though Hamper is a genuine mountain man, he has been known to a couple of generations of students and teachers at the University of the South at nearby Sewanee, and to the people at the old Highlander Folk School near his home in Monteagle. He has toured with the Southern Folk Festival, and in 1964 he recorded a now-out-of-print album with Guy Carawan. More recently, he has been written up by the Associated Press, and is the subject of Raw Mash, a 30-minute television documentary by Sol Korine and Blaine Dunlap.
Hamper was born in 1931, in Emory Gap in Roane County, Tennessee, but moved to Sewanee when he was a small boy. His father was a state highway inspector who supplemented his income by searching the mountains for herbs and roots. Hamper himself did this for a time after he quit school – he sold Black Haw bark for 65 cents a pound – and then in 1950 joined the army, doing a hitch in Korea and Germany. “After that I started in to making whiskey,” Hamper recalls. “And I stayed drunk a lot of the time. I did all sorts of jobs: construction, timber cutting, mule driving, working in taverns. Spent some time working for three or four carnivals.” All the jobs usually lead back to Monteagle, though, and it’s there that Hamper lives today, in a trailer set back in the woods a few hundred feet from I-24.
In spite of all this, there’s no way you can pigeon-hole Hamper into a typical mountain stereotype, either as a person or a singer. He can be wild and boisterous, or introspective and moody; you can find him swapping stories down at the local tavern, or home systematically reading his way through an encyclopedia. While he has learned a number of his songs from traditional sources, he’s very much aware of the folk revival movement, and doesn’t hesitate to pick up a song from a record or a songbook if it fits his style. One of his favorite singers is Bradley Kincaid; Hamper remembers hearing Bradley on the radio, on records, and traveling miles to hear him in person. Another favorite is Almeda Riddle, whom Hamper feels is about the best unaccompanied singer performing today. Other interests range from Woody Guthrie to Burl Ives to Vernon Dalhart. You won’t find that Hamper is a source for too many rare or obscure ballads (though he on occasion composes fine songs in traditional modes, such as “Jasper Jail” and “Wauhatchie Yards”); you will find that Hamper is a supreme stylist, with a rich, authentic, expressive voice that has mellowed with the years. It’s a voice that has what one listener has called “mountain soul.”
Back in the 1850s a Tennessee writer named George Washington Harris created an immortal backwoods character named Sut Lovingood. Sut liked drinking, dancing, singing, yarn-spinning, and loving; he hated preachers, hypocrites in any form, sheriffs, and middle-class bankers. There’s a lot of Sut Lovingood surviving in Hamper McBee, and by listening to him on this album, you can get a sample of the spirit that keeps the old songs and old tales alive.
—Charles Wolfe, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 1978.
*Our 2010 album does in fact contain material unsuitable for airplay, including the title track. Though it obviously can be stretched to apply to them, it’s not a reference to old-time songs or ways of life, but to a certain state of copulation.