The late great John Hartford’s legacy continues to resonate down the generations of American roots music. Washington State’s Eli West points to Hartford’s example of making collaborative music in his own fine new album Tapered Point of Stone. The music itself is something Hartford would be pleased with, too, I like to think. Hartford liked music that could be played by folks together, not by soloists showing off, and there’s not much of that kind of bluegrass pyrotechnics here, although the playing is all top-notch.
The basic tracks here were laid down just before things shut down in early 2020. West, playing mandolin, guitar, and banjo, made them with his go-to musicians: Andrew Marlin on mandolin, Christian Sedelmeyer on fiddle, and Clint Mullican on bass. Both Marlin and Mullican are familiar from Mandolin Orange (now known as Watchhouse), one of the most popular folk roots duos around right now (Marlin is the lead vocalist and songwriter there), and Sedelmeyer’s part of Jerry Douglas’s band, so these players all have deep Americana bona fides. And West’s vocals even sound a bit like Marlin’s, but have a bit more craggy old-time feeling to them. Mandolin Orange fans should find a lot to like here.
West has also collaborated fairly recently wth Cahalen Morrison (I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands) and John Reischman, and recorded with acts as disparate as Bill Frisell and Dori Freeman.
All this pays off big on Tapered Point of Stone. It’s about evenly balanced between originals and covers either of contemporary folk or traditional songs and tunes. It leads off with an original tune, “Ginny’s Little Longhorn,” a great little old-time tune that’s a tribute to Ginny Kalmbach, owner of the Little Longhorn roadhouse in Austin. Mullican’s bass line here just slays me for some reason. Other original tunes include the homey and hopeful “Cwtch (Cutch),” with a stuttering banjo line over a couple of gently twining fiddles, plus mandolin, guitar, and bass; the guitar-led romp “Johnny Wombat” with some serious flat picking; and the gently jaunty Americana of “Twin Bridges.”
The traditional tunes include one of John Hartford’s favorites, “West Fork Gals,” a squaredance standard that may have originated in West Virginia; “Ora Lee,” a peppier variant of the old Civil War-era ballad “Aura Lee”; and “Sweet Marie,” a Celtic/Appalachian twin fiddle fest that you’ll hear in fiddle camps nationwide, when we start having them again.
The songs here really shine, too. The one cover is a real treat – Scots Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis contributes backing vocals in English to “I Know Your Wandering Heart,” a dramatic on traditional themes ballad penned by Canadian roots singer Chris Coole. Steph Coleman, who contributes backing vocals on three tracks, adds the delightful drone of a shruti box to this one, and West plays a dramatically deep baritone banjo too – just a classic piece of music all around.
Other highlights among the songs include “Brick In The Road,” a sad little love song in a spritely waltz time, with a lovely fiddle line by Sedelmeyer; and the title song, which seems to me to double as a domestic love song and a remembrance of West’s father, who passed recently. It contains one of the most memorable (if tossed-off) lines I’ve heard this year – it has something to do with that pyramid on the cover. And the song itself is cleverly constructed with lines of alternating lengths, which somehow makes it mirror the unsettled feeling of being vulnerable to loss whenever you love.
In short, Eli West’s Tapered Point of Stone sets a pretty high bar for acoustic roots music albums for 2021. It’s on Bandcamp and other platforms.