Vinyl Treasures: 'Country Guitar'

A classic, under-the-radar compilation, examined in this edition of 'Vinyl Treasures.'
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I found my copy of Country Guitar at a used bookstore in the early ’90s. Released in 1965 on the Nashville label (a subsidiary of Starday), the compilation is under the radar and a real honey. As soon as I saw the cover, my instinct told me it would be a great record, confirmed by the inclusion of “Springfield Guitar Social” by Thumbs Carlisle.

Let’s focus first on some of the other tracks, because they’re all noteworthy. Billy Byrd performs the great instrumental “Teenage Blues.” Jimmy Capps lets his Chet Atkins influence shine through on “Nashville Shuffle” and “Chattanoogie Bound” and turns both cuts into classic masterpieces. On “Chattanoogie Bound,” Mr. Capps plays an octave breakdown that wouldn’t be allowed 20 feet near a modern country record. Hardrock Gunter, whose “Birmingham Bounce” prefigured rock and roll, is featured on four tracks that sound simultaneously people pleasing and incredibly bizarre as he demonstrates the tonal variances one can attain by picking near the bridge or neck.

The thing that struck me — and still does — is how unique each guitarist sounds. Everyone on this collection has a characteristic style and tone that make him instantly recognizable. This leads me to Country Guitar’s standout track, Thumbs Carlisle’s “Springfield Guitar Social,” where distinct guitar stylings deliver the drama. Thumbs played in a very unorthodox fashion, placing the guitar on his lap and incorporating the thumb of his fretting hand in conjunction with his fingers. The result is sublime, suggesting nothing of his unusual technique and revealing only his breathtaking virtuosity.

“Springfield Guitar Social” is about an imaginary group of six-stringers dueling with each other by playing like their favorite celebrity guitarist. The styles of Grady Martin, Les Paul, Jimmy Bryant, George Barnes, Chet Atkins and Hank Garland are thrown into the pot, and all are played singlehandedly by Thumbs Carlisle. He displays an outstanding encyclopedic knowledge as he captures the nuance of every player: jazz flourishes for Garland, regal fingerpicking for Chet, a thin tone with a hard attack for Byrd and so forth.

Guitarist Phil Baugh released a similar track in 1965 called “Country Guitar” that’s also a must-hear. I’m not aware of any other tracks in this “guitar celebrity” style other then Chris Spedding’s 1978 “Guitar Jamboree.” Mr. Spedding respectably covers Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton and others. It’s fun, and Chris is a great player, but “Guitar Jamboree” is not in the same league as the Thumbs Carlisle and Phil Baugh sides.

But would “Springfield Guitar Social” even be possible to produce these days? Distinct stylings used to be an asset to get the attention of listeners, and that would translate into record sales. Today, however, blending in tastefully is militantly prioritized, sometimes, I dare say, to the point of bland, safe mediocrity.

Country Guitar is available and irreverently inexpensive on eBay and Discogs. Or maybe, like me, you’ll stumble upon it in a used bookstore.