Lonnie Austin

“Richmond Square,” 1929

“Richmond,” Lonnie Austin,  Buck Easley, Wayne Martin, 1987

The recordings of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers were an early and important influence that helped broaden our understanding of stringband music. Margaret and I came to love the Ramblers’ performances and we learned the words to many of their songs, though we found it quite challenging to capture a semblance of the Ramblers’ sound. Charlie Poole’s voice combined his interesting rural southern dialect with an immense talent for enlivening song lyrics, no matter how sentimental or even nonsensical they might be. In addition to the plain fact that Poole’s voice was unique, we could not envision exactly how the banjo, guitar and fiddles that we heard on the records were actually played. In the hands of the North Carolina Ramblers, these instruments sounded different from any old-time music that we had heard. Eventually we learned that their styles of playing were influenced by parlor music and even semi-classical and classical music repertoires and techniques that were popular in the late decades of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries. Because Poole re-worked popular and Tin Pan Alley songs, the band no doubt sounded up-to-date to those who heard them in the 1920s. However to us, listening to 78 rpm recordings in the 1970s, the sound seemed to be almost idiosyncratic and far removed from the modern era. It seemed like music from a different time and place altogether. For that reason, I remember being quite surprised to learn that one of Poole’s fiddle players, Lonnie Austin, who played on some of our favorite Poole recordings,was still living in Eden, North Carolina and playing music.

I was a little uncomfortable the first couple of times I went to see Lonnie. I interpreted the stern look on his face as a disapproving scowl, which I later discovered was not the case. However, he did communicate that he was somewhat annoyed that many people, myself included, focused on his relatively brief tenure in Poole’s band and were unaware of his other musical achievements, which included a very full performing and recording career in the 1920s and 30s. Lonnie was an excellent pianist as well as a fiddler, and the times when I visited his home he would often begin by playing popular songs and hymns on an electric organ. However, he would always accommodate my requests for fiddling and later agreed to participate in my project to videotape old-time fiddlers in North Carolina. During our sessions, which took place in 1987 when he was 85 years old, he would invite Buck and Alice Easley over to accompany him and they would play a variety of breakdowns, waltzes and pop tunes. I was enamored of the tune “Richmond,” which I  heard him play on a 1929 recording with Poole, Roy Harvey and Lucy Terry. I could never make the bowing sound quite right on the high part of the piece, and he delighted in showing me how he played it. I seem to remember that he credited WIll Heffinger, a local fiddler, with teaching him “Richmond.”

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