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John Walker Biography

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John Walker In-depth Biography

In the early years of the new millennium, the discovery of an American named {%John Walker Lindh} fighting on the side of the Taliban of Afghanistan hopefully won't permanently prejudice the conservative country & western} audience on the subject of Walker's Corbin Ramblers}, which like much old-time} Appalachian music recorded in the historic era of the '20s and '30s has been under increased scrutiny. While this band's name sounds more like some kind of a country militia than an old-time} music string band}, with one trembling at the anticipation of just what kind of militia that might be with John Walker} leading the charge, the group's name makes much more sense if read backwards; beginning with "Ramblers," a word of such common currency as a band name in the Appalachian scene that it is hardly like having a name at all, always requiring some kind of identifying city or county name to come before it. In this case that would be Corbin, as in Corbin, KY, a tiny town that looms large in old-time} music history. The town was certainly some kind of a hotbed of classic old-time} music recording.

In 1927, anyone desiring a shave or a haircut for their two bits would have to hang ten. The barber Frank Shelton} was busy cutting two classic records featuring the tunes "Pretty Polly"} and "Darlin' Cory."} Then there was Hayes Shepard}, a "two finger" banjo player and singer from Letcher County, also known as the Appalachian Vagabond}, although how much that helped him standout from his peer group is questionable. "Blind" Jim Howard}, legendary fiddler and singer from nearby Cawood, was also on the scene. As mayor of Corbin, John Walker} is possibly the most powerful elected government official in the history of Appalachian music, that is until Ralph Stanley} gets nominated for the new head of Homeland Security. Speaking of security, it was Walker}'s job as a mayor to establish priorities for the town, and in the case of Corbin the priority was old-time} music. Walker} nabbed a talented picker named Larry Hensley} in 1933; Hensley} had been playing in several area string bands} including the Yellow Jackets}, no relation to the jazz fusion} band of the future with the same name. The mayor enlisted his brother Albert Walker} to play tenor guitar, and as the legend goes brought in the mandolinist Mack Taylor} from another county.

Walker's Corbin Ramblers} cut sides for Vocalion} in 1934, all of which are quite marvelous. Often discussed by musicologists is the epic "E Rag,"} which supposedly mystifies some listeners by appearing to be in the key of B. Walker} gets a free ride here; the glitch is usually blamed on either Taylor} or Hensley}. The latter player was the most talented of the group, and made influential solo recordings. Walker's Corbin Ramblers} benefited greatly in its acceptance from the leader's position in the community, since the mayor of a town is sure to have a better success ratio drumming up audiences for gigs than the typical musician shreeve; with the likelihood of being hired for local gigs also bound to be influenced by the presence of the town's mayor on the bandstand. As for Walker}, he dropped out of music completely following the band's run of eight 78 releases; but perhaps he couldn't face the idea of running a band when he wasn't mayor anymore. Much information about this group was presented as part of a traveling exhibition entitled "The Awfulest Gang of Records you've Ever Seen: Ed Ward and the Golden Era in Country Music," produced by record collector Ed Ward} in conjunction with the spring 2000 American Music program at Southeast Community College. This John Walker} is also of no relation to the rock} artist of the same name, nor to a country} artist who recorded the album Soul of a Gypsy Cowboy} in 2000. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide

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