Our pile of awesome new albums of Southern old-time music is growing by the day and this makes us happy! There's nothing we like more than lots of albums of barn-burning fiddle and banjo duets, or eerie old mountain ballads. Here's our latest finds and delights, check 'em out and enjoy!
Bruce Molsky. If It Ain't Here When I Get Back.
2013. Tree Frog Music.
Bruce Molsky is one of the premiere old-time fiddlers in the world, despite the fact that he hails originally from the Bronx and didn't get his start in the music until he was in his 40s. But he's sure made up for lost time and geographical differences! If It Ain't Here When I Get Back is his first solo album in six years, though he's been touring and performing with various other groups and ensembles. He's been busy for sure, but it's nice that he's circled back to his original inspirations. Like previous Molsky albums, this really is a solo affair. It's just him on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and his brittle-glass vocals (plus he produced it). And it's lovely, of course. He draws the songs and tunes from his prime inspirations, which means this is more eclectic than you might think. "Bimini Gal" is a fun and rhythmic guitar number inspired by the great Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence, and he includes tunes from other inspirations like Metis and Irish fiddlers. But the emphasis on this album is more on old-time than his previous albums. There's much here for true-blue old-time music heads, like the shifty fiddling on "Rattle Down the Acorns" from lesser-known fiddler Delbert Hughes, Molsky's softly sublime clawhammer banjo playing on classic tune "Johnny Booger", and a sweet version of the chestnut "Bonaparte's Retreat" from the fiddler in John Dilleshaw's wonderfully named band "Seven Foot Dilly and his Dill Pickles". I'm going to go out on a limb here and say something that might be a bit controversial: the best part of any Bruce Molsky album is not his fiddling, but his singing. On each album he includes a tour-de-force song of absolute beauty, not just in his singing but in his quietly assured phrasing that manages to let the words float first into our minds. On his last album he cut a version of "The Brave Cowboy" that was utterly heart-rending (I was so happy to see my friends Cahalen Morrison & Eli West cover this version on their new album). Here that song is "Piney Mountains" from old-time songwriter Craig Johnson. I hadn't really heard of Johnson before this but I immediately went out and bought his album to hear his version of this song. Johnson passed away not too long ago, but he was renowned as an old-time singer and songwriter, and his ice-fragile vocals and cracked mountain accent are a wonder to hear. "Piney Mountains" is a song about rough living in the mountains ("Lost my fingers in the Galax mill"... "I started out logging when I was in my prime/Woman don't you weep for me"). It's one of the best examples I've ever heard of true mountain blues. Kudos to Molsky not only for finding this amazing gem, but also for pulling out the heart of it for us to see.
Of course this as an album from an absolute master. Of course the music here is just fabulous. Of course you'll find new tunes or new players by buying and listening to this album. Of course you won't regret your purchase. So pick up your copy already!
Bruce Molsky: Rattle Down the Acorns
Bruce Molsky: Piney Mountains (C. Johnson)
If you'd like to find out more about Craig Johnson, check out his only solo album here:
Craig Johnson - Away Down the Road
Tom Paley's Old-Time Moonshine Revue. Roll On, Roll On.
2012. Hornbeam Recordings.
Old-time singer and multi-instrumentalist Tom Paley has been around the block... to say the least. Cutting his first album for Elektra in 1953, he became a lynchpin of the folk revival through his early work in the seminal stringband The New Lost City Ramblers. Along with Mike Seeger and John Cohen, Paley influenced a generation of roots musicians, not least Bob Dylan, who was a huge fan of the Ramblers. Paley's got the kind of autobiography where he can casually drop that he taught Ry Cooder his open guitar tunings. And booked (and played!) gigs with Woody Guthrie. Not many can claim that anymore. But unlike Seeger or Cohen, Paley left the US and left the scene in the early 1960s, moving to England. He was replaced by Tracy Schwarz in the Ramblers, and spent the rest of his years until now living in the UK and playing regionally. With his new album, Roll On, Roll On, here's hoping that his name will move back to the top of old-time and American roots music elders.
Roll On, Roll On is a homey affair, just Paley and some UK friends, plus his son Ben, playing through some classic tunes from the old-time repertoire like "Little Birdie", "Whiskey Seller", "Devilish Mary" and others. But there's such a lovely weight to his voice... the weight of years and years spent at the forefront of a cultural movement. Perhaps most importantly, he's clearly still having fun with the traditions. "Beelzebubbles" is a charmingly funny song about the daughter of the devil that Paley wrote and set to the tune of an old Charlie Poole song. The ballad "The Morning of 1845" has some lovely notes from Paley that show his sense of the fun behind the music: "We usually think of ballads as being about weighty matters, like war, murder, death and disasters, but this one, though a ballad in the sense of a story-telling song, just deals with getting drunk and going off to a dance."
He may move a bit slower now than in the rambling rough-and-tumble days of the New Lost City Ramblers, but Paley's just as nimble as ever with this old music and his love through the years for the music shines through clearly.
Tom Paley's Old Time Moonshine Revue: Whiskey Seller
Erynn Marshall & Friends. Tune Tramp.
2012. Hickoryjack Music.
Erynn chose the name Tune Tramp for herself as a way to convey the wide-ranging promiscuity of old-time music jammers. Some of these jammers travel all over the US, Canada, even the world looking for the great jams and reveling in the fun of picking and playing with friends. I call them "jam hounds", and could probably be considered one myself. I've jammed with Erynn a few times, in fact, and she's a wonderful jamming partner. Open to any tune, considerate about not bringing out super-hard or super-obscure tunes if the players aren't up for it, and genuinely happy to be playing with people no matter their level as musicians. It's a breath of fresh air in a world where star players can sequester themselves in back rooms hiding from the legions of lower-level players who want to jam with them. Jamming isn't always the most egalitarian activity (though it should be) and Erynn is a strong force towards changing that. She's also a strong force for the preservation and continuation of Appalachian old-time music and fiddling. Though she was originally from Canada, she lives now in Galax, VA, leading the Blue Ridge Music Center at the heart of Appalachian old-time's motherland. It's the perfect place for such an outgoing advocate for the music and she's been doing great work there.
With Tune Tramp, Erynn documents some of her travels across the US and Canada, each track a kind of field recording of her playing with friends. And what friends! The guest list reads like a who's-who of old-time music: Skip Gorman, Kirk Sutphin, Rafe & Clelia Stefanini, Pharis & Jason Romero, Chris Coole, Foghorn Stringband, The Canote Brothers, Paul Brown, Bruce Greene, Eddie Bond, John Harrod, even young Cajun all-stars Joel Savoy and Kelli Jones-Savoy. Some of this is called keepin-it-in-the-family: Erynn's engaged to ace old-time mandolinist and songwriter Carl Jones, who's Kelli's father, so there's that. And Erynn and The Romeros had an amazing old-time band together for a few years called The Haints. But the rest of the folks here are all traveling friends. As with any kind of far-reaching album like this, there are real gems here. "Trouble on the Mind" from beloved Kentucky fiddler John Salyer is played here with such thoughtful expression that Erynn's really able to bring out the beautiful melody. "Tune Tramp," a song written by Carl Jones based on the album's title is a lovely ode to the long travels that traditional musicians undergo to learn and spread tunes. "Rambler's Blues," an old Stanley Brothers cut, sounds amazing with Caleb Klauder and Sammy Lind from Foghorn Stringband trading vocals, and Joel & Kelli Savoy turn a great Cajun version of the song "Poor Hobo." Billy McCumbers is a great find here; he's the son of aged West Virginia fiddler Lester McCumbers and a powerful Appalachian singer in his own right on "Silver Bridge." This album is a joy throughout and a great look at old-time music as it's passed between generations.
Adam Hurt & Beth Williams Hartness. Fine Times At Our House.
Young clawhammer banjo player Adam Hurt is widely considered to be an intense virtuoso on his instrument, and his new album with guitarist and singer Beth Williams Hartness is pretty much another case of proof-positive. His playing is effortlessly melodic, no small feat for an instrument (the clawhammer banjo) whose playing is designed for rhythm first and melody second (or third). The particular playing style of clawhammer banjo, in which pickers have to keep returning to the high-pitched fifth string at rapid intervals has always hampered players looking to bring out full and complete melodies. Of course this "limitation" has also given the banjo its characteristic rhythmic punch, and in the hands of a great player like Hurt, you get an instrument that can punch through a melody like machine gun fire. Don't think for a second that Hurt is bound by the old Ken Perlman melodic clawhammer banjo school that, though beautiful, frequently overclutters the playing with complex machinations designed to play every note of a fiddle tune. Rather, Hurt floats between this school and the dazzling power of the old guard of Appalachian clawhammer banjo players, able to bring out the essence of every tune without sacrificing a second of rhythmic intensity. It's a tour-de-force.
On Fine Times at Our House, Hurt fiddles along wonderfully as well. Is there anything he can't do in old-time music? The tunes are chosen with care, and though mostly well known, each tune sounds as fresh and new as the day it was written. Special love should be given to Hurt's cover of the sublime newly composed tune "Obama's March to the White House" from Seattle's Greg Canote. This and Red Prairie Dawn from Garry Harrison are two of the best new tunes these days and deserve to be played by all and sundry. Fine Times at Our House is an easy romp from one of the best clawhammer banjo players around, and it's an all-around great joy to listen to.
Adam Hurt: Richmond
Metis Fiddler Quartet. North West Voyage Nord Ouest.
I'm not sure Métis fiddling really qualifies as old-time music (though it's certainly old-timey), but heck, if it's good enough for Bruce Molsky, then it's good enough for me! Métis fiddling comes from the mixed populations living in Canada's Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces–and down into North Dakota and Montana in the States. The Métis people come from the intermarriage and genetic mixing of Native American and French-Canadians, historically based around the fur trade. There's a long and intense history here and much for the Métis to be proud of today; after all, they shaped the character and content of Western Canada and roamed the plains for a couple centuries as avowed badasses.
In the world of traditional North American fiddling, the Métis borrowed a lot from their French-Canadian roots, but the music was refracted through their Native American heritage. Tunes that might be recognizable in French-Canadian quarters were fractured and rebuilt, reflecting new rhythms and ideas that bend the tunes to a whole new cultural world. It's quite a wondrous thing, and great Métis fiddlers like John Arcand or Teddy Boy Houle never cease to amaze and inspire me. For the young members of Metis Fiddler Quartet, these inspirations have directly guided them and their debut album pays clear homage to the elders. Both Houle and Arcand taught the kids directly, or had a hand in the tunes they've chosen for the album. The tunes are arranged somewhat, since the instruments for this quartet are twin fiddles, guitar, and cello. The arrangements help bring new character to the tunes though, and the tunes are played with a remarkable dexterity in players so young. This album is clearly the start of a bright career as these young kids bring Métis fiddling to a new generation, and kudos to them for having such a clear respect for the traditions. This album is a pleasure to enjoy and I hope these kids go very far!