This larger than usual, and even larger than life, string band was one of several ensembles that came together out of informal music-making events at the Durham, NC, home of Tommy and Bobbie Thompson. Some of these musicians, including banjoist and playwright Tommy Thompson, would go on to form the Red Clay Ramblers, which would become the most successful of the old-time string band revival bands. The mid-'60s was a time of great interest in traditional American folk music, and not only were young musicians busy performing and learning about this music, many of them were wandering the hills, looking for the original performers for the purpose of music lessons, recording, and interviews. The new generation of old-time players came from completely different backgrounds than the originators they were seeking out. While early pioneers of this music who recorded in the '20s and '30s were from dirt-poor farming or mining backgrounds, players such as the members of this ensemble had college educations, indeed some of them even held master's degrees. A married couple that was part of the original formation of this group, Malcolm and Vickie Owen, are good examples.
In 1972, when the band's first album was released on Rounder, Malcom was a candidate for Ph.D. in romance philology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, while Vickie held a master's degree in French from the same campus. They were both introduced to old-time music when they moved to the Chapel Hill area in the mid-'60s. Banjo player Bertram Levy was their guide into this new world. Malcolm's brother Blanton picked up the banjo around the same time, at first imitating the styles of country players such as Stringbean and Grandpa Jones, gravitating toward string band music during his late-'60s years in the Navy. Like many players at this time, he spent time studying and playing with influential old-time heroes, in his case, the banjoist Fred Cockerham and Kyle Creed.
The group's first appearance was at the Union Grove Fiddler's Convention in 1968, but they were passed over for the recording compilation of that event. Band membership then shifted, with Bobbie Thompson joining as guitarist. The dulcimer style of Vickie Owen basically summed up the group's approach. She played a traditional instrument and a traditional repertoire, but did not attempt to create a carbon copy or even play her instrument in an acknowledged folk style. Her use of the instrument to accompany the fiddle on fiddle tunes was innovative and unusual. The group would often play an old-time string band number, but in a subtly altered instrumentation. The most striking characteristic was of course the size of the group, by the end involving triple banjos and always a pair of fiddles doubling up on the melody. Bill Hicks joined the group as fiddler in 1970; he would later become one of the original Red Clay Ramblers. Most of the group's jobs were private parties and get-togethers, with the occasional festival or fiddler's convention thrown in. The group's size and the full-time jobs of various members made larger-scale touring enterprises unwieldy. They were pegged for a Rounder release in 1970, and this debut self-titled LP finally saw the light of day two years later, following appearances by the group on several compilations from the annual Union Grove event, as well as the Galax Festival.
After the release of the album, various members began moving away, and guitarist Thompson was killed in an auto accident. New members were added and an improved version of the band appeared again at Union Grove, this time placing first in the Old Time Band competition. A second album was released on Rounder in 1972. The band's final performance was at National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1973, by which time most of the members were scattered hither and yon, and Hicks and Tommy Thompson were becoming busy with the newly formed Red Clay Ramblers.
The Fuzzy Mountain String Band repertoire contained a great number of tunes by obscure but great old time players such as southwest Virginia fiddler Henry Reed, Taylor Kimble, or Gaither Carlton. The folk music tradition of passing music on from generation to generation certainly has no better example. As a result of the group's performances and recordings, this repertoire of tunes passed on to many new string bands around the world. This group was never really concerned with becoming ultra-professional or a full-time performing unit. It was more about social gatherings, family involvement with music, and the good times to be had when like-minded musicians get together. This vibration definitely soaked into the band's recordings and has made them classics. A CD reissue consisting of the entire first album and a big chunk of the second was released by Rounder in 1995, and some members of the group reunited under the original name for a performance that year at Merlefest in the Smoky Mountains. ~ Eugene Chadbourne