Review: Ben Hall, Fingerstyle Country Guitar in the Travis-Atkins Tradition

Wednesday, 20 April 2011 07:12 PM Written by 


Charlie Louvin, surviving half of the revered close-harmony duo the Louvin Brothers, first heard Ben Hall when the Belmont University student, a fingerstyle guitarist in the Merle Travis-Chet Atkins mode, visited the Louvin Museum in Nashville one day. Louvin knew that style well since Atkins played it on Louvin Brothers records in the 50's, when he did Nashville studio sessions. Louvin (who died in January) realized Hall was the real deal.

Fingerstyle, of course, involves picking melody with the right hand fingers on the guitar's top strings and simultaneously thumbpicking bass accompaniment on the guitar's lower strings. Black blues players like Blind Blake played similarly, and a black guitarist named Arnold Shultz from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky (immortalized in John Prine's "Paradise") devised his own picking style, one that caught on with local white guitarists. Travis learned it as a teenager from miners Mose Rager and Ike Everly (Don and Phil's dad). In the late 1930's Travis took it to Cincinnati radio station WLW.

Atkins, living in Georgia, heard Travis's picking on the radio in 1939. Unsure how Travis did it, he devised his own version. Merle used his thumb and index finger; Atkins did it with his thumb and two fingers. The pair inspired generations of guitarists, including Doc Watson and many rockabilly greats. Jerry Reed and Tommy Emmanuel likewise built on the Atkins-Travis traditions.

Hall is steeped in Travis-Atkins, thanks to the records he'd heard in his dad's country record stash, which also included the early Louvin Brothers material. He worked his way up, winning fingerstyle contests with an austere fingerstyle approach evoking Travis with elements of Atkins. All this comes through resoundingly on his debut album: Ben Hall! (Tompkins Square).

Accompanied by bass and drums, Hall reprises tunes recorded by Travis and Atkins decades ago, including engaging renditions of "Cannonball Rag" and "Guitar Rag," Alabama Jubilee"  John D. Loudermilk's "Windy & Warm," Travis's vocal number Sweet Temptation" and an instrumental version of the Louvins' "Every Time You Leave."  His vocals on "Temptation" and "Guitar Rag" are unpretentious and engaging.

The pop standards "Lover Come Back to Me" and "There'll Be Some Changes Made" are optimal for fingerstyle playing and totally in the Muhlenberg tradition, where early pickers routinely played pop and jazz tunes of the day. "Oklahoma Hills," Roger Miller's "King of the Road" and the original "Mimi & Me" are all expertly rendered.

Gifted thumbpickers abound: Tommy Emmanuel, Paul Yandell, Thom Bresh (Travis's son), Eddie Pennington, Pat Kirtley and others. Hall's youth and dedication to maintaining the sound in a purer form are pluses.  He merits a much wider audience.

Here's Hall playing the first tune on the album (acoustically). "Cannonball Rag" was a tune created by another early Muhlenberg master, Kennedy Jones and later made famous by Travis.

On this one, recorded last spring, he sings "Nine Pound Hammer," an ancient tune Travis also made famous, with a few bits of Chet Atkins thrown in for good measure.

If you're not familiar with this style and want to hear it by the masters, here's Travis, who died in 1983, appearing on Opry star Porter Wagoner's syndicated TV show.

This is Chet Atkins, circa 1954, playing a fingerstyle version of the pop tune "Mister Sandman," a hit for him in 1955.  The cool guitar is the Gretsch Chet Atkins model. It inspired an entire line of Atkins Gretsch guitars and the Brian Setzer line of Gretsch models.



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