The Old 78's and Shitakes: - Carol Anne Rose & Curly Miller
By Steve Green
Dancers across northern Arkansas are familiar with a driving, rhythmic fiddle and banjo sound that reaches out and says, “Dance!” in no uncertain terms. This is the music of Curly Miller and Carole Anne Rose. Playing dances while on tour or in concert, they have allowed thousands more listeners and dancers to experience what the home crowd has come to rely on. When Curly and Carole Anne are playing, dancers don’t have to bring their own energy—it is there
waiting for them. Their music can vanquish the deepest of workday funks and replace it with a connection to the innermost joy of dance. Moreover, when they tour as the Old 78s, they give more than an invitation to listen, or even an inspiration to move your feet. When Curly leans into the fiddle for a hot tune and Carole Anne frails that big banjo, the message comes straight out of the origins of old-time dance music, and goes straight to the musical brainstem.
Talking about what old-time music used to be might seem like semantic confusion, but for Curly and Carole Anne it has real meaning. This husband and wife are full-time farmers, so they feel a connection to a way of life that was prevalent when old-time music was acquiring its character. Music may be how we meet them, but Sweden Creek Farm is the daily passion in their lives. They live “way back in on the dirt,” growing organic shiitake mushrooms, herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers on a beautiful farm tucked in the rugged Ozark mountains of Madison County, Arkansas. A visitor is in for a surprise when, after traveling five miles on dirt roads along free-flowing Sweden Creek, to come upon a very organized organic farming operation. Each week, Curly and Carole Anne’s farm produces 800 to 1000 pounds of Shiitake mushrooms from tens of thousands of logs, nourished by cold spring water from the wooded mountainside. The same creek irrigates several garden plots. Make no mistake, though; this is not typical agri-business farming from inside the air-conditioned cab of a giant farm tractor. This is hands-on farming, in which every log that produces a mushroom is picked up and moved by muscle power many times in its production cycle. This is also farming in which stoop labor is shared as much by the owners as by one of the five or so employees who also live and make their livings onthe farm. Curly and Carole Anne market their produce in northwest Arkansas every week and, with the help of two of their children, Sara and Silas, make deliveries to restaurants and markets, and to the airport for shipping to organic distributors around the country.
They explain that this very physical life of daily outdoor work has inevitably shaped the way they play music. It is no stretch to appreciate that the way a person experiences the playing of an instrument is strongly influenced by their physicality and way of life. Bodies that have routinely lifted tens of thousands of pounds of shiitake logs, and picked thousands upon thousands of mushrooms, bring different capacities and sensibilities to an evening music session or the monthly dance. The music of the Old 78s harkens back to the recordings of rural America made in the late 1920s and ’30s with strong rhythms, driving fiddle bowing, and the call to the dancer.
Curly’s Early Musical Life and History
Given his affinity for old-time melodies and his hearty fiddle style, it might come as a surprise that Curly started his musical life playing classical violin. Although he credits the early training in classical method with instilling in him the fundamentals of good technique, he describes himself, with a smile, as “always a bit on the rough side.” Music was a part of life for Curly early on, coming mostly from his mother’s family. His grandfather Beck played all types of brass and was the director of music for the Schenectady, New York high school band system, and Curly’s grandmother and mother both played piano – so it was assumed that Curly would have an interest in music. In third grade, his preference was for trombone, but the Penfield, New York school system needed violins, and so it was that Curly tucked his first instrument under his chin. He had aptitude and competitiveness, and soon he was first chair. After that he made concertmaster for the school orchestra, where he stayed until his junior year in high school, when rock ’n’ roll hit. Actually, the electric guitar had come into his life several years earlier, and had progressively replaced the violin in his life. By his junior year in high school he was spending many hours a week in his bedroom listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and was playing in a rock ’n’ roll band. The electric guitar went with him to college at Potsdam, but a year and a half convinced him that neither electric music nor college was for him. He heard his first Leo Kottke record at about the same time he left school and started working construction in Rochester, New York. The three-finger guitar style came to fully dominate Curly’s repertoire, and he dropped the electric guitar for acoustic. Throughout this period, as he and his friends experimented with musical styles, they were also exploring alternative life styles. With his soon-to-be first wife, he moved to upstate New York above the Adirondacks in search of affordable land on which to try his hand at homesteading. They did find the land, but found the hard winters at odds with gardening, and became convinced they should look to the south. Another friend had done a motorcycle tour of the country and came back talking about northwest Arkansas. That was inspiration enough for the young couple, so they moved into a dilapidated farmhouse near Rogers, Arkansas, and went to work at Emerson Electric Company building electric motors. It wasn’t long before an 80-acre mountaintop came up for sale. They bought it and immediately began building a quintessential “hippie house.” It was of unusual construction, reflecting Curly’s considerable talent as a builder, as well as their general lack of hard cash at the time. Three stories tall, it was notable for its freeform and angular layout, a reaction against square-cornered spec houses. After many years living with no electricity or running water, having two children (Sara and Kerry), and installing solar power and a wind generator – not to mention a stylish outhouse – Curly and his first wife parted. Curly stayed with the land.
Shortly after coming to Arkansas, he had discovered the music festival at Winfield, Kansas, and he was inspired to pick up his fiddle again. At Winfield, he listened to Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and James Bryan, and he became fascinated by flat-picking. Coming back each year, he also had a chance to hear Bob Atchison, who Curly says was the first person he heard really playing old-time dance music. Curly felt he had just about found his musical home, and gradually he turned away from the more modern sound of Leo Kottke, instead soaking up old-time dance tunes. Then in 1982, the Celtic influence hit when De Dannan played at Winfield. The group was a huge hit that year, and Curly succumbed to Celtic fever in a big way. Frankie Gavin became, and still is, a big influence, and Curly would record Gavin’s festival sets on a small cassette recorder and then spend all night at his campsite figuring out the Irish tunes. That really focused him on his fiddle, with some time out for the button accordion, and he spent the next several years steeped in Irish music – writing out Irish tunes and playing in an Irish band.
Carole Anne’s Story
The story how Carole Anne, a Jersey girl, came to make the acquaintance of an organic farmer/fiddler in Northwest Arkansas is an interesting one. Carole Anne is the oldest of six siblings, having four brothers and a sister. To say that it was a rough and rowdy upbringing would be an understatement. Living on a dead-end street next to big woods and a swampy pond, the Van Horn kids were always climbing trees, building forts, catching turtles, and playing sports with the other neighborhood kids. Carole Anne’s parents were avid music listeners and also provided her with several years of keyboard accordion lessons, no doubt hoping for a family polka band. In addition to the diet of accordion polka music, her parents had lots of banjo and harmonica LPs, which, according to Carole Anne, really influenced her love of the banjo. During the folk song and hippie movement of the 1960s, Carole Anne took up the guitar and protest music, forming a folk band with some girlfriends. Her interest in sports, music and social activism continued into college where she played guitar, competed in several sports, and attended many protest marches. Before graduation, she and her high school sweetheart were married and moved to a rural farming community in rural New Jersey. Since her father always had a big garden and her mom put up food, Carole Anne immediately started planting things. She also started taking classical guitar and flute lessons. As a programmer and systems analyst for AT&T, her job was demanding and required travel. At the same time, she was still active in sports, competing in the US Volleyball Nationals, and cross-training in distance bicycling. Eventually the limited hours in a day forced her to make a decision, and she chose to give up her job rather than miss planting and harvest. It was time to farm full-time.
Land in New Jersey was too expensive for Carole Anne to consider buying a farm, but she was actively searching for other possibilities when, in 1985, a girlfriend in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, called and said, “Come right away, there’s a good place for sale.” Soon a plane flight to Bartlesville and several hours of driving put her at the end of a paved road in northwestern Arkansas, and still she face half an hour on a dirt road. Undaunted, Carole Anne knew it was the place for her on first sight. The Ozark farm was in a high mountain valley with several small pastures surrounded by a healthy forest, and best of all, it had several good springs. Bursting with life from good soil and abundant water, it was clearly a special place, so much so that the Nature Conservancy had purchased property just up the creek from the farm. The largest spring fairly gushed out of a cave, and promised enough water for the organic farm she envisioned. Not being one for half measures, and recently divorced, she left her job with AT&T and came to Arkansas. Initial ownership involved land partners, but over the next few years, Carole Anne bought out their interest and became sole owner.
Curly and Carole Anne Meet
The nearest town to the farm Carole Anne purchased, Kingston – population 200 – is a long five miles away by dirt road. Given this isolation, the locals were naturally interested in possible new neighbors. On one of Carole Anne’s early visits, she stayed with local families, including Preston Cook, the local water witch (dowser), and his wife Charlotte, who lived in town. She also made the acquaintance of an older hippie couple who took an active interest in their new friend, inquiring as to her interests and passions. When the talk turned to men, they exclaimed with delight that she should meet the man who owned the adjoining property up the mountain, a man by the name of Curly Miller who also played volleyball, had a big garden, and was a well known musician. The next day Carole Anne drove out over more miles of backcountry roads and got her first view of Curly’s unusual three-story hippie mansion. Never the shrinking violet, after knocking on the door to find no one home, she left a note. That evening Curly called and inquired of his friend Preston whether there were “any single women staying there.” Preston put Carole Anne on the phone with Curly and she agreed to meet at his place the next day to walk the boundary lines of her property. On first meeting of her future husband and music partner, Carole Anne formed an impression of a man very different from those to whom she was accustomed. Curly is naturally barrel-chested, and had been working construction and logging in the mountains for ten years. Single and living alone, he exuded a kind of backcountry vigor and charm that was new to her. Carole Anne had planned on having a single-woman phase, focusing on getting her farm started and postponing girl-meets-boy activities for later. Curly had different ideas, and began writing to her when she was back in New Jersey attending to details of the final move. That was the missing piece for Carole Anne’s subconscious. This backwoods hunk could write really great letters, funny letters, letters that she read and re-read.
Her house in New Jersey sold in the next weeks, and it was then time to get a cabin built. The first task, however, was getting electric power brought in, and this was an expensive proposition. As luck would have it, Curly was also ready to have power brought to his house up the mountain, and volunteered to help clear the common right-of-way for the power poles. This was the occasion of their first date – and a unique first date it was.
They met in the greenbrier-draped section of forest that was identified to be the power company right-of-way. Carole Anne had her brand-new Husqvarna chainsaw, sensible boots, and a bit of trepidation about working with this man in his own element. Again, Curly surprised her by assuming that she could do what she put her mind to, and that they would work as equals. Both set into the hard sweaty work of cutting, dragging, and stacking trunks and tops, all the while fending off the slashing thorns of the ubiquitous greenbrier vines that draped every branch and bough. In the midst of this, Carole Anne was raked across the face by the vines that were entwined with a cedar tree she had just felled. While raising her hands to protect her face, the chainsaw passed a bit too close to one knee and cut through her trousers. Her first thought was that the chainsaw had only cut her pants, but when her boot started to get wet with blood, she realized that it was more serious. Curly wasn’t far away, and they set off for the doctor’s office, picking up Curly’s two children from the school on the way. So, it became a family affair, with his daughter holding Carole Anne’s hand as she got stitches, and the doctor joining Curly in showing off his own chainsaw scars. The next day, continuing the unique courting style, Curly made dinner for Carole Anne at his house, and they played music on fiddle, banjo, and accordion.
By now, Curly knew without a doubt that this was the woman for him. A few days later he determined to come calling properly. Loading his old flatbed International truck with firewood, chairs, and homemade pizza, he set off down the mountain. Carole Anne was, of course, expecting him, and her anticipation built as the sound of the un-muffled engine came and went as the truck passed through hollows and topped ridges. Within minutes of his arrival, Curly had the fire going, and they played music as they waited for it to die down to coals. Somewhere in the course of sharing food and music around a campfire ringed by shadowy cows, and looking at the stars, they fell in love, and the future was now very different for both. (Continued on next page ) 1|2|3
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All the music on The Old 78’s: Old Time Fiddle Rags, Classic and Minstrel Banjo can be previewed at http://cdbaby.com/cd/old78s and purchased there or from The Old 78’s website http://www.theold78s.com
Jim Nelson, reviewer for THE OLD TIME HERALD, writes:
"From start to finish, this has to be one of the more enjoyable, and unusual selections of dance fiddle music released in quite some time....I suspect that if this duo could be somehow transported back through time about 150 years and plopped down smack dab in the middle of a dance in their neck of the woods, no one would even bat an eye.
From Kingston, Arkansas
Visit their website at http://www.theold78s.com