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Jimmie Tarlton

Jimmie Tarlton is best known for his partnership with Tom Darby, which lasted from the late '20s until the mid-'30s. The two were never especially fond of each other, however, and although they both saw some activity in the '60s as part of the folk-blues revival, and Tarlton got to make a record, there was no impetus for continuing the partnership.

Tarlton's style was rooted in rural South Carolina, where he was born and raised. His father, a sometime farmer and sawmill worker, played a fretless banjo and his mother sang. At age six, Tarlton was playing banjo and French harp, and he later took up the guitar and learned to play bottleneck, using glass and a knife. In the '20s, he also discovered the Hawaiian guitar style. He played around the northeast and the Texas-Louisiana-Oklahoma region in the teens, and eventually made his way to California, playing at bars, cafes, and in medicine shows.

Poor eyesight kept him out of World War I, and he made his living working at local cotton mills in South Carolina before becoming a telegraph worker. He began recording with Tom Darby in 1927, but across his career, his performances included collaborations with Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, and the Skillet Lickers, among numerous others. Although Darby and Tarlton had a substantial hit with "Cumberland Stockade Blues" and "Birmingham Jail," their contract only gave them a flat payment of $75 for the records, and there were no follow-up releases with any similar success. By the mid-'40s, Tarlton had left the music business.

He was rediscovered in 1963, living in Phenix City, AL (a notorious locale in its own right, incidentally, as the sin capital of its county and a crime and corruption center whose story was chronicled in two separate feature films in the '50s) and became a renowned figure in the folk and folk-blues revival. Tarlton played some shows at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, and made a record, but was too old by that time to pursue the opportunities in front of him.

Tarlton became one of a handful of figures -- country fiddler Eck Robertson is another -- who preserved a style of music-making that would otherwise have been lost and embellished it into becoming something new and all his own. His music, as preserved on his solo sides recorded at his own home in the early '60s by then incorporated the influences of Hawaiian guitar and ragtime, but beneath it all was a native South Carolina folk style that pre-dated recorded music. ~ Bruce Eder
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