Suitcase (Frank Salamone & Jimmie Stagger) live onstage in 1976 at Battle Ground, a gig they considered one of their very best. The festival was recorded by NPR member station WBAA in front of a highly enthusiastic audience. This recording documents nearly the complete show, in the order of performance.
It's interesting to hear the audience warm up to Suitcase as the festival progressed over three hot and humid July days. It seems like the Friday set was met with polite applause, perhaps because no one knew quite what to expect (most acts at this show were either old time or bluegrass, and Frank and Jim were offering something very different). But by the start of Saturday evening's set ("Don't Sell It, Don't Give It Away"), the audience had an idea of what was about to unfold onstage, and you can hear it from the very first note.
In releasing this record, we were remarkably lucky on several counts: WBAA had made a high quality recording, the tapes had been well preserved for three decades by the folks at Indiana Fiddlers Gathering, Inc., and we were able to track those tapes down and license the material for release. After conversion to digital, we did find a few audio anomalies, but were able to remove virtually all of them. Other than volume adjustments and balancing, there are no edits to the music on this recording.
Frank and Jim each play multiple string instruments; the result is six different combinations over eighteen tracks (seven combinations, if you include the field holler that was done a capella). Some of the highlights for me are Jimmie's superb mandolin on the Blind Blake song "You're Gonna Quit Me", his blues fiddle on "Stop and Listen" and "Walking Across The Country", Frank's affinity for the pulse and for the guitar's low register on "Stop and Listen", and Frank's performance throughout "I Never Cried".
Frank and Jim knew dozens if not hundreds of tunes from the country / folk blues tradition, and could rattle them off with few repeats over many successive shows. On this recording there are at least a couple of arrangements they put together on the fly, on tunes they each knew but had never played together, either before or since.
They had a great knack for making these old songs their own, in one way or another. A prime example being the brilliant "Walking Across The Country", a semi-obscure Blind Blake tune that was played solo on the original 78 RPM record. Frank learned it from a reissue of that 78, and came up with his own way of playing it. Jimmie conjured up a fiddle part out of the blue, and the result is a truly unique arrangement.
For me, a particularly poignant moment comes in the middle of one of the strongest tracks, "Statesboro Blues"; the audience really hollers out after Jimmie's mandolin break, and then you hear Jimmie react in turn. A reaction coming from the sheer joy of playing onstage to that great audience. At the same time, Frank is starting the next verse, singing the line "What are you gonna do when your troubles get like mine". No one knew at the time what was in store; over the last two decades of his life, Frank suffered from the effects of Multiple Sclerosis, passing away on April 29, 2012.
There are who-knows-how-many great guitar players out there; zillions of great singers. But the deep knowledge of the tradition, combined with the ability to sing well and self-accompany in such an intricate style, is a rare thing indeed. Rare to find in a single performer, let alone two working together.
If you listen closely at the start of the last track, recorded on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon in July, you can hear Jimmie say "Thanks a lot, man" to someone in the audience. After the song ends, amidst the sound of the boys packing up their guitars, you hear Jimmie call out "Thanks for the beer". And the reply comes back: "Thanks for the music!" A fitting end to a memorable show.
Frank Salamone passed away today, four days after the release of this recording.
J. Leitch - Grand Rapids, Michigan - April 29, 2012