He’s been called an “increasingly rare living link to our musical past” and “a treasure we all should cherish” by his record label’s founder, Josh Rosenthal. But to those unfamiliar with history of old-time country music, the now 90-year-old Spencer Moore is simply an old Virginia farmer who happens to play guitar on his porch.
The North Carolina native, however, is that and much more, thanks to his rich musical roots that began early in his life when he was introduced to old-time music—something that would shape his life and lead him to one day play alongside country-music pioneers, including a tent-show with the original Carter Family in the 1930s.
One of 11 children, Moore was young when his family moved from the northwestern corner of North Carolina across the mountains to Laurel Bloomery. Here, he was introduced to even more old-time music by neighbor, G. B. Grayson (1887-1930), a blind fiddler and singer, whom Moore would later perform with.
Old-Time Country Music Recordings Influence Spencer Moore
Per Moore’s record label-distributed artist biography, it was while he lived near Grayson—who relied on playing music for his living, because of his handicap—that Moore’s father first obtained a wind-up phonograph and records.
In turn, between hearing records by players such as Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, Riley Puckett and neighbor Grayson, who had a short but historic recording career with guitarist-vocalist Henry Whitter (1892-1941), Moore’s love for country music grew deep.
In 1933, a 14-year-old Moore, with a mail-order guitar bought from Sears and Roebuck, attended the famous Whitetop Mountain Folk Festival, where—among other live performances—he heard Eleanor Roosevelt sing Three Little Babes, an old British ballad that is also known as The Wife of Usher’s Well.
Country Singer-Guitarist Performs with Country Pioneers the Carter Family
According to the aforementioned artist bio, by the late ‘30s Moore and his brother, Joe, had begun performing under the Moore Brothers moniker in the tradition of the Delmore Brothers. It was during this time, too, that the pair performed in a tent-show with the original Carter Family.
Ultimately, Moore served a stint in the U.S. military during World War II, and afterward, he returned home and became a tobacco farmer. Still, according to all reports, he never stopped learning and playing songs or performing at local dances and house parties in his small-town community.
Dr. Paul Pauls, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, said in an interview that Lomax recorded a number of pieces by Moore, including Jimmy Sutton and The Girl I Left Behind, as part of his Southern Journey project. These performances, then, were released on the Atlantic and Prestige labels.
Spencer Moore Releases Historic Country Record on Tompkins Square Label
Nevertheless, Moore, who celebrated his 90th birthday on Feb. 7, 2009, might have been largely forgotten by today’s country fans, if not for the preservation efforts of record producer/label chief Rosenthal, who took the initiative to once more record the then-87-year-old Moore on June 20, 2006, for the New York-based Tompkins Square label.
Initially, Rosenthal happened upon Moore quite by accident, he said during an interview, when he saw a photograph of the musician-farmer as part of a New York photography display.
“I’d never heard of him before I saw a gallery exhibit of (music collector) Alan Lomax photographs,” Rosenthal shared. “There was a picture of Spencer playing guitar and singing in a tobacco field. … There was a caption underneath, something to the effect of, ‘Spencer is still playing at the local BP station every Saturday in Chilhowie VA.’”
From that point forward, Rosenthal went about the task of learning about, then locating, the old-time artist. Two months later, Rosenthal said, he was “on a plane (to Virginia) to record him.”
Moore’s Old-time Country Songs Important to Historic Preservation of Music
The end result of that visit to Moore’s is the 14-song Spencer Moore CD, released in 2007, which features the same photograph on its cover that Rosenthal spied during his 2006 photography exhibit visit.
Today, Moore still resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Kentucky, largely untouched by modern conveniences and today’s technological world. And he easily boasts a repertoire of 500-600 old-time country songs that remain etched in his memory and musical past, Rosenthal confirmed.
“He’s one of the last authentic rural voices from a bygone era that is not coming back,” Rosenthal said of Moore. “He heard a lot of old-timey songs in his childhood that have since become standards on his parents’ Victrola when those songs were actually hits.”