This Kentucky mandolinist is about the furthest away one can get from the notion of a "city slicker" bluegrass musician. Although he made records that have been considered examples of early bluegrass, including the amusing cotton-mill song "Lint Head Stomp," he has spent most of his life in the isolated hamlet of Elkhorn City, KY, spending a great deal of time composing instrumentals as well as lyrical songs. Although his name may be "Phebel," his mandolin playing most certainly not feeble. He made records in the '50s, including for labels such as Essex, and also recorded special pressings for the Kentucky WISI radio station, with sidemen such as guitarist Junior Morgan and Estil Stewart, playing something known as a "bull bass." When contacted about liner note information for the compilation reissue The Early Days of Bluegrass, Wright did not provide information about the bull bass instrument -- if it is an instrument, perhaps it is a large fish of some sort -- but did come up with tantalizing details about other instruments in his life.
His first instrument was apparently a mandolin, which he bought from a friend for a quarter; that's right, 25 cents (musical instrument salesmen can daydream about the commission on this sale). The next time he bought an instrument the investment multiplied, manyfold. He spent 4.45 dollars on a guitar. Wright's father, an old-time banjo player, was not about to let an investment as large as this lie fallow, and immediately put the lad into service playing square dances. Devoutly religious, the mandolinist does not believe in the reputation of non-secular music as "sinful," instead feeling his interest in music is a natural outgrowth of his family upbringing. His combo Phebel Wright & the Music Mountain Boys cut a pair of EPs for the Wright-Tone label, which includes a rip-roaring, hee-haw, rather than "ho-ho-ho" version of "Santa Claus Is Coming"; the personalized instrumental "Wright's Swing," which shows the mandolinist venturing practically into progressive bluegrass territory; and a track entitled "Thick Ack-A-Thouin'," perhaps the most mangled name for a song in country music history.
by Eugene Chadbourne