“The street balladry of the people who began migrating to America in the early 1600s is considered to be the roots of traditional American music. As the early Jamestown settlers began to spread out into the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Virginias, they composed new songs about day-to-day life experiences in the new land. Since most of these people lived in rural areas, the songs reflected life on the farm or in the hills and this type of music was called ‘mountain music’ or ‘country music.’ ” This introduction to the history of bluegrass music comes from the Web site of the International Bluegrass Music Association. While the four CDs under consideration all fit into the category of Traditional American Music, only one of them can be safely categorized as bluegrass; however, all four are inexorably linked by a firm root system buried deep in the garden of American music.
Close Harmony has the oldest recordings of the group. It is as its subtitle says, “A History of Southern Gospel Music” and as such contains recordings from 1920 to 1955. These are gospel trios and quartets, singing hymns and songs of the faith, in close harmony. Coming from an evangelical background I can attest that groups like this still exist, often put together by a family, or a group of friends in a local church, who join their voices to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” If you’re not into doing that, you may find the fundamentalism of the lyrics a bit cloying, but these folks can really sing! The set begins with “The Old Gospel Ship” by the LeFevre Trio (a family group consisting of Urias the lead singer, banjo player; Alphus, tenor and fiddler; and sister Maude, alto and guitarist) and there is nothing like the harmonies sung by a family! Think the Everly Brothers and you’ll understand what I mean. The Rangers Quartet follows with “I’ve Found a Hiding Place,” and prove that you don’t have to be related to sing this stuff. Many of the groups were accompanied only by a piano. That’s why you’ll often see a picture of a Quartet, with FIVE people in it. You look, count, scratch your head…well…the fifth person is the accompanist! The Stamps, the Rebels (with Big Jim Waits), the Statesmen, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Blackwood Brothers, and more all make this a fascinating overview of a foundational style of music. Just as soul singers learned to sing in their churches, so too the early bluegrass and country (and even rock’n’roll) performers learned at their meetings.
There isn’t any singing on the next album under consideration, but it’s the only true bluegrass collection in the bunch. Mike Barnett is a 14-year-old fiddling phenomenon from Tennessee. He’s only been playing for just over four years, but to hear the album you’ll shake your head and imagine someone much older. He takes these bluegrass and fiddle standards and makes them his own, right from the first tune. There’s an inexplicable story attached to this disc, and how it came to appear at GMR. I received an e-mail from Mike’s mother alerting me to the fact that she was sending it. I replied, “Thanks!” Then it arrived with a note from Pat Barnett (Mike’s Dad) which said, “David — my wife ran into you in Roanoke — she was the kidney doctor…” Well, I’ve never been to Roanoke, and I don’t really need a kidney doctor, although any doctor who treats me could be called a “Kidney” doctor I guess. But whatever led to this music finding its way here, I say more power to it! This kid can play. And it’s not just technical expertise: Barnett shows some real feeling in bowing these classic tunes. “Cripple Creek,” “Trouble In Mind,” “Sally Goodin’,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and the title tune are surrounded by other selections to provide a sort of personal history of the genre, and his technique is dandy. His intonation is right on, and his bowing and fingerwork is fine. I can’t find any way for you to order this CD but maybe writing to Mike’s dad would work.
Next up is the latest CD by a group that has taken all these influences and created a body of work that reaches over thirty years. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s first album was released in 1967. Hmmm, I was 16, and I remember hearing their first single on the radio! They appeared, in 1968, in singing cowboy Clint Eastwood’s film Paint Your Wagon. Then they split up, got back together in ’70 and had a hit with Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” Their biggest work was the three record set Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which saw them supporting such oldtime country stars as Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter and Merle Travis. This project has since been expanded (over the years) to include two more multi-disc sets! Welcome to Woody Creek is their first album for Dualtone, and the first since Circle III. It features new songs from all the band’s writers, as well as a couple of interesting covers. “Walking In the Sunshine” starts things off in a mellow tone with country harmonies and acoustic picking. “Forever Don’t Last” is a bit more of a rocker, with slide guitars and plenty of twang. The close harmonies of the Dirt Band’s singers echo the historical harmonies albeit in a more secular vein. There’s fine fretwork from everyone on a broad selection of stringed instruments: Jeff Hanna’s guitars, Jimmy Ibbotson’s guitar, mandolin, mandola (and even accordion) and John McEuen’s banjos, guitars and fiddles, which is not to ignore the keyboards of Bob Carpenter, or Jimmie Fadden’s drums and harmonica. Guest Dan Dugmore provides pedal steel on “Any Love But Our Love.” The covers? Gram Parson’s “She” is mellow and quiet and the Beatles’ “Get Back” is a banjo-driven stunner! Great singing all ’round!
Finally, all the lessons from the past are given new life, and a punky direction by Cast Iron Filter on Falls of Rough. And, get this…it’s a concept album! They call their sound “irongrass,” where “rock’n’roll meets the mandolin, and where the passion of punk meets the grace of Americana.” That’s what they call it, and that’s definitely what it sounds like! The “concept”? Well, lead singer/acoustic guitarist Dustin Edge writes the lyrics, which tell stories of Depression-era Kentucky and its citizens. Mandolinist/music composer Mike Orlando provides the rootsy backing (and three instrumental passages) for the songs, and together with the two new members (bassist Paul Skipper and drummer Brian Burton) the band brings the past into the new millenium. Right from the first song, a heavy drum beat that leads into Edge’s strong voice, and then a touch of Orlando’s mandolin and some power chords on the electric guitar, the listener is captured. This is potent stuff. “Got a Model T Ford / lay down the hammer and feel the road / Mary let’s go down / down to the river tonight.” Edge plays the harmonica on “Hold Your Heads Up High,” but Orlando’s confident chording on the mandolin (and the straight ahead rhythm section) drives the song. The mandolin solo underscores the beauty and power of the oft-underrated instrument.
Each song is titled, then credited to a character…a name and a date. Citizens from the town of Falls of Rough: A field hand, the bartender, the preacher, the sheriff, the mayor. Their tales are told, one at a time. To better understand the whole story, Edge has created a Web site which includes a character list, photos, newspaper clippings and hand-written letters. [Update: the band’s website is gone but they have a legacy Facebook page and you can stream this album on Spotify ]
So, there you have it, four CDs that each take the essentials of american roots music and play it their own way. From the founders who are represented on Close Harmony to the close harmony of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. From the Dirt Band’s respectful modelling of traditions to the update provided by Cast Iron Filter. From the fiddle virtuosity of Mike Barnett to master mandolinist Mike Orlando. The circle is not unbroken, it just keeps rolling around. Long may it roll!
(Mike Barnett, 2004)
(Cast Iron Filter, 2004)