About H.M. Barnes' Blue Ridge Ramblers
Just who the heck is H.M. Barnes? Well, imagine if Elvis "The King" Presley went under the stage name of "the Colonel's Elvis Presley." Barnes was a '20s promoter who hit the road setting up tour dates for the old-timey string band he fronted strictly as a figurehead. Barnes himself played no instruments, did not sing, and, to the best of anyone's knowledge, never set foot on-stage during a performance of the group.
The Blue Ridge Ramblers were a valuable collaboration involving members of a few different string bands who were known in their own right, including Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. Some of the tracks recorded by the group have become treasured by old-timey music fans through several different anthology reissues, but it took research conducted in the '70s by publications such as Old Time Music to identify many of the players who had participated. The earliest known members of the band, such as accordion player Aubrey Smith and guitarist Kyle Rupp, left the Ramblers before any studio recordings were done.
Some bandmembers had been active in other groups of this ilk, especially the so-called vaudeville hillbilly bands. These were groups who were featured as part of an evening's entertainment, but were by no means bogus versions of old-timey music, as the players had often been hired out of the best groups of the day. The brothers Fred and Henry Roe played both in the Ramblers and Al Hopkins' Hill Billies, another popular old-timey vaudeville act. The Roe brother duo recorded for County and Columbia under their own name. Other players in the group worked in both straight old-timey groups and vaudeville shows, including the banjoist Jack Reedy, who recorded a famous version of "Groundhog" for County.
North Carolina fiddler Lonnie Austin toured with the band, but is only heard on piano on the recordings. Most of the group's tracks followed a pattern of solos for the lead instruments with vocals downplayed or turned into rowdy choral attempts. The Ramblers did a mixed repertoire of old-timey fiddle tunes, minstrel numbers, and a few marches. Breaks featuring three fiddlers at once were a highlight of both shows and recordings, and this, along with the use of steel guitar, is a slight precursor of the Western swing style, minus the jazz feel. Because of their larger-than-usual size, a group of this sort also tended to erase regional differences between the style of the players, creating something in the nature of the homogenized, one-size-fits-all cowboy hat that country music would eventually evolve into on a national level.
The Blue Ridge Ramblers were only active for several years as a group, but the musicians and the music they played certainly outlived the vaudeville circuit. Some of these performers were active following the folk music revival of the '60s and '70s, but no effort seems to have been made to locate H.M. Barnes. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi