Posey Rorer: The Sound of Pre-Depression Fiddle Culled in the Heart of Southwest Virginia

Imagine the world of the late 1920’s and every country store in America houses a series of necessities; feed and farm supplies, milk, cheese and other trade goods, perhaps even the mail and local newspaper.  In the corner, a phonograph spins the most recent ‘Hillbilly Record’ by Buster Carter, or Roy Harvey, or Charlie Poole.  Through the hiss and crackle, the lilting sounds of fiddle fill the air, a rhythmic singing met with virtuosity and confidence that was instantly identifiable. The sound is Posey Rorer, whose inimitable style graced the recordings of a breadth of artists across the early Victor, Paramount, Gennett, Champion, Broadway and Edison labels, and whose Columbia Record sales as a sideman placed him on over half a million turntables and Edison players all across America.

Posey Rorer was born in 1891 between Henry and Brown Hill in Franklin County, Virginia – and became one of the most ‘heard’ fiddle contributors of pre-depression America, by far. Despite being badly club-footed, Rorer attended school through the sixth grade.  He developed an early interest in the fiddle and began playing regularly with area musicians, but it wasn’t until meeting Charlie Poole while working in the coal mines of West Virginia that he began a stretch of recording work that would solidify his place within the pantheon of early country music industry pioneers, particularly of southern fiddlers documented prior to World War II. 

Charlie and Posey returned to Southwest Virginia in the early 1920’s and began honing their sound at distilling sites throughout the region.  In fact, this character of ‘distilling’ applies pretty aptly to Posey’s fiddle technique as well.  As Wayne Martin, respected fiddler and Executive Director of the North Carolina Arts Council writes: 

“Rorer had a gift for perceiving the essence of what makes a tune or song noteworthy or special and then conveying its unique character through an artful performance that simultaneously conveys excitement and vigor.”

After touring regularly to fiddle contests and conventions throughout the south, Charlie, Posey and guitarist Norman Woodlieff (from Spray, North Carolina) traveled to New York in 1925 to record their first session with Columbia which featured the iconic “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues.”  The record sold an astounding 102,451 copies.  

Posey’s session work continued to make him an essential and ubiquitous presence within the early “Hillbilly” recording industry.  As an on-call fiddler for the likes of Kelly Harrell, Roy Harvey, Preston Young, Walter “Kid” Smith, and Buster Carter, he became a regular house-hold name and defined the perceived sound of music from the central Appalachian region. Scholar and great-nephew of Posey Rorer, Kinney Rorrer spoke of Buster Carter’s admiration of the fiddler as a side person in a live interview: 

“Carter told me that he loved Posey as a backup fiddler…  He said it was like turning a dial… when it came time for the fiddle to lead, Posey would “turn it up”…. and when it was time for the singing he’d “turn it down”.  [Carter] said [Posey] was the best he ever saw at that…” 

Kinney continued to reflect on Ernest Stoneman’s fondness of Posey Rorer’s fiddling: 

“Ernest told me that ‘except for my son Scotty… Posey Rorer was the best fiddler I ever heard,’ and that’s saying a lot coming from Ernest Stoneman, he knew fiddling…” 

Posey was without a doubt an incredible influence, not only on the local fiddle tradition but on the greater lineage of oldtime music because of his wide-spanning legacy as a side person and contributor to the roots of early country music.  

Learn more about Posey Rorer from this piece, contributed by Kinney Rorrer.

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