Charlie Poole was a sot, a holy hell-raiser, a smart-mouthed terror of a banjo player with huge, open ears. His recording career lasted just over five years, from his 1925 megahit “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” to 1930 sides that sold only to cultists; a year later, he drank himself to death. Having wrecked his picking hand by catching a baseball bare-handed, Poole wasn’t a great technical player, and he didn’t write songs. But he could identify a great song buried under orchestral gunk and insufferable minstrel accents on a 20-year-old record, yank it spine-first out of its setting, slash the fat out of its lyrics, and translate it into a slurry, cocky snarl for the North Carolina Ramblers, his trio with guitar and fiddle. Even when he’s garbling words or barely keeping up (as with his version of the temperance song “Good-Bye Booze,” which he drawls through a 100-proof fog), Poole’s records swing, crisply and bluntly. They’re not fancy, but they get to the point. And if you played banjo after him, you were either a post–Poole banjoist or a relic; the organizing principle of this roughly half–Poole three-disc anthology is that he gave country music a good hard shove toward where it eventually went.
That could be pretty hard to hear from a 2005 perspective (sloppily recorded proto-bluegrass, historically important, gotcha, next). But the really clever thing about You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me is its but-wait-now-listen-to-this sequencing: The other half is by Poole’s predecessors and contemporaries. The Ramblers’ hits and curios alternate with the starched-shirt-and-burnt-cork originals of songs that Poole liquored up and booted in the ass (like Cal Stewart’s dorky 1906 “laughing record” “Monkey on a String”), solos by earlier banjo showoffs like Fred Van Eps that Poole taught himself banjo by playing along with, and contemporaries of Poole copping his arrangements and style. The Blue Ridge Highballers crank up “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” to hardcore speed in a 1926 medley with “Going Down to Lynchburg Town”; three years later, Poole’s quintet the Highlanders snatch back “Lynchburg Town,” slow it right back down, and plug in banjo-solo breaks like a jazz band. There was tooth-and-claw stylistic one-upmanship all over the string band scene, and Poole sounds like the kind of bastard you want on your side. Even if that means you have to switch sides.