Musicians pay homage to historic OKeh Records

From staff reports

One of the most influential labels in the early years of commercial recording was OKeh Records, and in 1925 it made groundbreaking “hill country recordings” in Asheville that still resonate with musicians and listeners.

Those sessions will be celebrated by David Holt and an all-star cast of local roots musicians at the White Horse Black Mountain on Friday, Aug. 28 Joining Holt will be multi-instrumentalist Adam Tanner, fiddler Rayna Gellert, and Asheville string band Brody Hunt and the Carolina Cud Chewers. Hunt, an avid collector of vintage 78s, will play some of the the original recordings at the White Horse show.

In the 1920s record manufacturers were scrambling to tap huge markets of under-served audiences, dispatching talent scouts to find and record artists playing blues, “hillbilly” and other ethnic styles. One of these labels was OKeh (pronounced “OK”) from New York City, named after the initials of its founder, Otto K.E. Heinemann.

In 1925 OKeh cut historic 78 sides in Asheville’s Vanderbilt Hotel with old-time guitarist/harmonica player Henry Whitter and singer Kenny Harrell, who had travelled down from Virginia. The recordings, presided over by legendary A&R man Ralph Peer, were the first phonograph records made in the Carolinas. Among others who recorded in the makeshift hotel rooftop studio were banjoists R.B. Smith and S.J. Allgood, autoharpist Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, Madison County’s Bascom Lamar Lunsford and blackface vaudeville blues performer Emmett Miller, whose “Lovesick Blues” became a hit for Jimmy Rodgers.

It was the only time that OKeh visited Asheville, but the recordings made there and others in the OKeh catalog became a treasure trove for young revivalist musicians like Holt, a longtime musical partner of Doc Watson.

Holt’s encyclopedic grasp of Southern roots music made him well suited to recruit other artists for the OKeh tribute. Tanner plays virtually every instrument found in old-time string band music and has taught many others along the way. Gellert has created her own distinctive style of adventurous fiddling, rooted in old-time but willing to explore. Hunt and Tony Costa, formerly of the neo-jug band Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks, form the core of the string band sounds of the Carolina Cud Chewers.

OKeh dokey

What: OKeh Records’ 1925 Asheville sessions salute

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28

Where: White Horse Black Mountain

Cost: $12 advance, $15 door