Ralph Stanley learnt his version of ‘Oh Death’ from John and Frances Reedy.
For anybody interested in old-time music, early blues, country, and jazz Yazoo records has a very special place in their hearts. The label was founded in the mid-’60s by record collector and sound engineer Nick Perls to release in the LP format collections of early 78 recordings of authentic American roots music. San Francisco comic artist Robert Crumb designed many of the original Yazoo record covers which only enhanced the collectability of Yazoo releases. In 1989 Yazoo Records distribution was picked up by roots, folk, jazz, and world music specialist label Shanachie Records, founded in 1975 by Richard Nevins and Dan Collins, who re-released the Yazoo catalogue and have used the imprint for a number of special releases over the years. The latest in this long line of roots music re-issues is ‘The Legacy of John and Frances Reedy’ which is a two CD collection with a well researched 20 page booklet. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with re-issue producer Ivey S. Sheppard to discuss the process and challenges of re-releasing original country gospel music and to get an insight into the exceptional power of the music. As well as working with Shanachie Records, Ivey S. Sheppard has her own internet radio show Born In The Mountain, and a career as an old-time musician.
Before we start discussing ‘The Legacy of John and Frances Reedy’ can you tell me what your role with Shanachie Records is?
I’m sort of an obsessive record collector, 78s and post-war gospel and things like that, and I work radio, and I met Richard Nevins at a record collectors gathering a few years ago and we just became fast friends. I had this idea that I wanted to preserve and promote this gospel music that has kind of gotten lost over the years, and I sent him one of these Reedy tracks and he just went nuts over it and so we cooked up the idea of this project, haha.
The music was lost, but also in a way it was never there.
Yeah, it was always just small distribution, they were just one of the very many regional groups.
Their music may not be modern, but it is not from the ‘30s, so wouldn’t necessarily expect to uncover new music from the ‘60s, or would you?
You do find it all the time. When I go out record hunting and I pick up these 45s and LPs they are by local musicians who maybe just played the local radio stations or around churches and they just travelled and sold their records out of the trunk of their car, and there is still lots of this stuff out there.
Is that your genre at the moment in terms of your own collecting?
I have a lot of pre-war records, but my main focus and passion, I guess, is trying to find these small label records of things that nobody has heard and that are fun discoveries, haha. I mean, hearing them on the radio is just the best thing in the world.
The picture on the record cover could be a reasonably modern couple, it may not be contemporary but it isn’t dustbowl or anything like that.
That’s right, you could certainly see couples who look like that today.
Can you describe what it is like to undertake a project like this, and had you done anything like it previously?
I was part of the team that reissued the music of Early Upchurch, who is a gospel singer from Mount Airy, North Carolina, where I’m from, and we did that on the Field Recorders Collective, but in a lot of ways it was much easier because I was able to call up Early’s daughter to see if it was OK for us to put it out, and she was just like go for it. Doing the Reedy stuff, because a lot of it was on Starday we had to get the licensing and do all our due diligence with letters to anybody we thought may have claims on the copyrights.
I’ve lost touch with things, so who owns Gusto and Starday and was it easy to get things sorted?
Richard Nevins did most of the work on that, and the biggest problem was that the pandemic hit, and everything just took a lot longer than we had thought. Before all that, I had contacted Timi Reedy, who is the granddaughter of John and Frances and she has a website dedicated to the Reedys, they got a grant I think, and they have tried to preserve the music in the archives at Berea College Special Collections and Archives. I called her up and explained I had this idea and she was like, who are you calling me, haha, you must be up to no good. So it took a little work to persuade and convince her that we were doing this for all the right reasons.
Who was responsible for the twenty-page booklet giving the background to the recordings, and how much effort did it take?
That was a group effort. Nevins did the general biography of the band, Timi and I wrote and we collected photographs that were in the archives at Berea, and Nevins and his daughter put the book together.
What did you learn from the research that went into the booklet?
It is interesting trying to write these historical notes, and we wanted to make it about the music not necessarily how they lived their daily lives, we wanted it to be about what you are hearing as a listener and not just an academic kind of thing. I think we pulled it off, and there is a general line about how they came up and how they met, how they had to move to Ohio searching for a better life and how they never stopped playing music. They just seemed to have a house filled with love and joy, and they tried to spread that wherever they went.
Is ’The Legacy of John and Frances Reedy’ the complete recordings of John and Frances Reedy?
This is not the complete recordings. We selected the ones we thought stood out the most. There are probably six or eight sides on other labels we didn’t use, and then there are all the home recordings because, evidently, they kept a reel-to-reel recording all the time. Some of them were just in really bad shape, others were just fragments of songs. So we tried to pick out the stuff that highlights the music.
What drew you to this music?
Just the attack and the passion, and I remember when I first heard the record, I think it was an LP that was a bunch of stuff that someone had dubbed off, I think they had been 45s. It just kind of knocked me back in my seat and made tears come into my eyes, and I felt something and I thought this is powerful music, I’ve got to figure it out and find more of it.
What do you think makes John and Frances Reedy that little bit special?
I think they were from the place where they were and the life that they lived, and I think there is a passion and a feeling to that kind of music. I have this theory that with the folks who live in the coalfields it somehow brings something out in people that never normally comes out, and their music is real. You can feel the belief, you can feel the passion in it, and the two of them together is just something else. Frances is such a tremendous singer, as is John, and they have great backing and just really good feeling, and there are a thousand different people you can pick up doing gospel recording and they are really nice and really pleasant, but this is something more than that.
These recordings are predominantly from the ‘60s aren’t they, do you think this is the last time America had a vibrant local recording industry, or did it creep into the ‘70s? To keep going with your coalfield analogy, when did the seam run out?
I think there is probably some into the early seventies. I think these little small backwoods towns weren’t so impacted by the outside world, and they did something that was unto themselves. I think that still existed in small amounts, for instance, I play music with a group called The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers out of Row Mountain, Tennessee, an old-time band, and listening to the way they played it felt pretty much untouched by time.
Modern media can corrupt because no one can unhear what they have heard.
They do have electric instruments and all that so it is not that they are untouched by time.
Do you have a favourite track on the record or one that is maybe the most representative?
If you ask anyone familiar with the music of John and Francis Reedy they will probably go immediately to ‘Oh Death’, which I think has almost got a cult following with people who like this kind of music, haha. It is a very special and powerful tune. I used to work at this little radio station in Mount Airy, North Carolina, and I had to read the obituaries every day at 4:30 pm, and after that, you have to play appropriate music, and this is what kind of got me into this obsession of looking for this kind of music, and I put the needle down on the turntable and it was ‘Jonah’ by the Reedys and it just absolutely grabbed hold of me, it moved my heart, it moved my feet, it just kind of got to me at the core. John Reedy is credited with writing ‘Somebody Touched Me’ which they recorded in ’48 in Bristol originally, and then they re-recorded it for Starday. If I had to pick only one track it would probably be ‘Oh Death’.
I hadn’t heard of the Reedys, and I think a lot of people may be a little surprised when they hear ‘Oh Death’ because it is now so associated with Ralph Stanley the ‘Oh Brother’ film. What did the family think about what has happened to that song?
I think they were probably thrilled that somebody had taken notice of music they had heard the Reedys sing and were paying tribute in a way to that sound and keeping that song alive. I know that Timi is delighted when anyone records or sings one of her grandparent’s songs.
You obviously loved the music and this project is a labour of love, but everything costs money so is there a particular business plan behind the release?
We need to sell as many as we can, and people need to know it is out there, haha. The big hope is we are talking to as many people as possible and getting on all the radio shows we possibly can just spreading the joy and the love that is this music. I don’t know how you figure out exactly how much you need to sell and how much it is going to cost, but being able to hear it and know that it exists is what it is all about.
The original Yazoo label preserved a lot of great music, what function does it provide as part of Shanachie Records?
It is still an imprint of Shanachie and it is all for reissue work, I think it is several years since Richard Nevins had done a new release. I thought it was kind of a long shot when I asked him, I think you should get Yazoo back up and in business, haha, and he was just like, OK. It means a lot to me because I think about all the Yazoo records and how they have been an introduction to things. The work he does in sound restoration is really tremendous, and that is what I’ve been learning how to do as well. To be able to sit beside Richard Nevins at the board and to do these transfers and literally try to pull out the best sound possible.
I’m assuming Richard Nevins was self-taught.
It has just been a matter of trial and error, and he talks about how he thought he was doing great years ago, but now he is doing even better with all the insight he has gained, and that is really true.
How much work had to be put into the transfers of the original masters?
There were a lot of hours put into the transfer and remastering. We had all the originals from Starday, we got the masters, and they needed a bit of work to bring out the sound and make it shine.
Can you describe the difference in sound achieved by the 2022 remasters?
It sounds like they are in the room with you, they are jumping off the record now, they are just there, there is nothing in between, and I think that is kind of the goal.
You seem very pleased with yourself.
This is what makes me want to wake up in the morning, and to be able to put together this project is a really, really great pleasure. There is also going to be a multi-disc post-war gospel project that we are going to start working on pretty soon as well.
A part from the music, what else do you discover through projects like this?
I’ve always thought I was born in the wrong time, haha, so I guess it is kind of an escape from wherever this world is going right now. It is just about great discoveries because with many of these post-war things you can track down the artists and their families and that means you can get the stories and the pictures, and sometimes even home recordings. It is a historian, sociologist, and archeologist’s dream, haha.
How is Richard Nevins?
He is great. I was speaking to him last night and he is just so fulfilled and delighted that we have produced this project because it really was a very long process getting it all together, and so when it finally all came together when it did we both felt we could breathe again.
You got Yazoo Records restarted, was there ever any possibility that Robert Crumb may have done the record cover?
It never came up I don’t think because the photograph is so evocative I don’t think there was any choice about using it. Being able to work with Nevins who has been a mentor to me has been a very special thing to me. To know that we have both worked to pull this together, and to keep the music we love out in the world.
If you think about the music that people like Richard Nevins has saved for posterity it is unbelievable really.
I need to do it, I need to sit down with a tape recorder, I love the stories about all those record hunters in the ‘60s just going out and the places they went to, it is just so wild. They did a great service to the whole world because at that point people didn’t have all the discographies let alone the music.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which three artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Aside from John and Frances Reedy, haha, I’ve been listening to a lot of Rebe and Rabe recordings, they are a duo from Alabama who played in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and they made some really great tracks on the Tennessee label. I’m always into early jazz, I really, really like early jazz like Sam Morgan or Junie C. Cobb, and that is kind of what I do when I come home in the evening from the radio station, I fix supper and play early jazz. It has to be pre ’33, haha.
Do you think there is much more early jazz to find or have we got most of it?
I don’t know a whole lot about it, I just know what I like. And then there is anything by the original Carter Family, and as it is almost the 96th anniversary of their first recording we can’t forget Sara, A P, and Mother Maybelle, haha.
In a strange way, things haven’t moved on very far from their music.
I guess not, everything stays the same even though it changes.
Is there anything you want to say to our UK readers?
If you like this kind of music please buy the album, and if you like old-time music I’d encourage anyone to seek out my internet radio show Born In The Mountain .
‘The Legacy of John and Frances Reedy’ is released on 2 September on Yazoo Records.
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