Consider the phrase "old-time music": so quaint, so backwards and so harmless that "parlor music" is nearly a synonym. But once old-time music was new, wild and nearly unimaginable. Rhythm & blues, let alone rock & roll, didn't exist, and phonographs were the latest gadgets threatening to put radio stars and minstrel shows on the skids. During this era nothing sounded quite like Charlie Poole, the old-time banjo picker and all-around badass who exhorted and slid notes so loud they cut through any and all lacquer hiss.
With this lavish, three-CD box set, Poole sounds absolutely alive, like guns or moonshine couldn't kill him. The North Carolina songster was a hell-raiser, sure, and the romantic down-by-law stories are well chronicled by Henry Sapoznik's liner notes. But Poole knew how to forge the stomp and strum of barn-dance jams into songs, whether he was the original author or not. He wasn't afraid of ragtime or Victorian pop tunes, either -- Poole led arguably the best white string band of the '20s, the North Carolina Ramblers -- and sang harder and higher than contemporary Dock Boggs, with a sneaky vocal range and dazzling ambition. Without him there'd be no "Sweet Sunny South" or "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues" (which has been covered by everyone from Bob Wills to Etta Baker to the Flying Burrito Brothers) -- and perhaps no talking country blues as we know them, via latter-day troubadours like Woody Guthrie. Chuck Berry surely knew some variant of his "Sweet Sixteen." You should too.