Awesome Men Through History: Tarheel Slim
This week’s selection for Awesome Men Throughout History is an unusual one, because Tarheel Slim was a journeyman blues musician who can’t even be called a one-hit-wonder, and he doesn’t have the huge library of recordings that a lot of his better-known contemporaries have. There’s not much information about his life floating around, either. But Slim was responsible for one of my favorite songs, and I think it’s good enough to earn him a place here.
Tarheel Slim was born, as his nickname indicates, in North Carolina, and grew up the way many rural Southerners did: toiling long hours in a tobacco field and listening to his mom’s record collection. Luckily, his mom was a blues fan.
Oh, and obviously his real name wasn’t Tarheel Slim. His real name was Alden (or Allen) Bunn, and he performed under that name off and on throughout his lifetime.
Anyway, the musical education he got from his mom’s records was furthered in church, and he was recruited by a local gospel group called the Selah Jubilee Singers after one of their members heard him singing and playing guitar; once tobacco season was over, they brought him on board to sing baritone for the group. Like many gospel groups in that era, the Selah Jubilee Singers recorded secular material under another name (the Larks), and also changed the name of their group about six hundred million times over the course of their career. They did release some pretty great jump blues numbers as the Larks, though. “Little Side Car,” for instance, is as solid a piece of early 1950s blues as you’ll find anywhere.
Slim did a few solo recordings during his tenure with the Larks, but his best work, in my opinion, came in the late 1950s, when he recorded “Number Nine Train” as Tarheel Slim for producer Bobby Robinson’s Fury Records. “Number Nine Train” is a peerless rockabilly single: the beat has a lot of thump, the guitar is as simple as it is masterful, and Slim’s powerful voice soars over the arrangement like an eagle. It’s the kind of song that never sounds old or corny, and it’s honestly better than what a lot of more popular rockabilly artists (looking at you, Gene Vincent) were doing.
Unfortunately, it was the only rockabilly song Slim ever did. He and his wife Lee Sanford (aka Little Ann) became a duo that tried to do for blues what Ian and Sylvia did for folk (and I guess what Mates of State did for indie rock), but it didn’t really catch on, so Slim’s performances were limited to blues festivals and the folk blues circuit until his death from pneumonia in 1977.
Really, Slim was like a lot of working musicians; talented, and kind of famous on a regional level, but he never really found an act or a sound that stuck before he faded away. I really wish he’d cut a few more rockabilly songs, but I’m glad he recorded the one he did, and it’s weirdly fitting that a guy who time kind of forgot recorded such a timeless song.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.