The Awful Truth
3.5 stars (out of 5)
Bluegrass has a rich lexicon of lyrics — many original, some adapted from other genres, and others liberated from British folk songs. The lyrics that are important to us might be a line, a couplet, a verse or chorus, perhaps a creative turn of phrase; we remember the words because they impact us in some manner — they are poignant, touch a nerve, or elicit a memory.
Some of our favorites would be instantly familiar- maybe “Nine pound hammer, it’s a little to heavy, for my size…” or “I drew a sabre through her, which was a bloody knife. I threw her in the river, which was a dreadful sight.” Others might be less familiar, but as powerful or memorable: “I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennessee” or “I’m like a John Deere tractor in a half-acre field, trying to plough a furrow where the soil is made of steel.”
Well, get ready to add to the list of bluegrass lyrics that are, once heard, never forgotten: “Fatten up pig, fatten up now, don’t you be mistaken. Come a-hard frost, hog killin’ time, good sausage, ham, and bacon!”
The tune is “Hog Killin’ Time”, and it kicks off the strong album from Alberta’s Widow Maker; these veteran bluegrassers have delivered a tight, dynamic, and powerful listening experience.
Many Canadian bluegrass fans will be well familiar with the principals of Widow Maker. Banjoist Craig Korth and vocalist Julie Kerr have been mainstays of the Alberta bluegrass and acoustic scene for years, and Byron Myhre has fiddled as a member of various bands, most prominently with Korth in Jerusalem Ridge. Dale Ulan is less known nationally, and plays bass with Widow Maker.
For some, the least known member of Widow Maker is Will White. With a back-story that wouldn’t be believable should it occur in a mystery novel, White is a doctor who just happens to be a son of the South who followed love to settle in Calgary. Raised in North Carolina, Dr. Will comes to bluegrass naturally.
He writes and sings the majority of the songs on this debut recording, bringing to each his deft touch. Especially impressive is the way several songs, but none so strongly as “Silver and Gold, Diamonds and Pearls,” sound like they could have been pulled off a Red Allen album of forty years ago.
Whether it is on the slightly-frivolous “Get Up There Mule” or on more subtle numbers such as “She Should Know” or “Believe Me,” White’s approach to the song leaves nothing in reserve. His voice is distinctive and true, and while the band is most assuredly an ensemble, it is White’s vocal contributions that resonate most with this reviewer.
Both the title track and “Deal Breaker Baby,” with their sixties pop/country crossover overtones, delicately picked guitar breaks, and warm vocals sound closer to a Billy Cowsill outtake than Bill Monroe’s bluegrass, but they are among the album’s many highlights; the songs are two of a number that feature White and Kerr harmonizing to memorable effect. The reverb-heavy “You’ve Mistaken Me” is another number that brings the late Cowsill to mind.
Myhre’s sizzling fiddle playing is prominent on nearly every number, but never overwhelms the vocal space shared by White and Kerr. Instead, Myhre fiddles like Bill Anderson sang thirty-five years ago- effortlessly.
Korth can ring tones from a banjo like no one else in Alberta, and his work is positively featured throughout the recording. Picking out individual banjo highlights is pure folly, but 5-string enthusiasts are advised to check out “Water’s Rising,” “One More Cup of Coffee,” and “Just One More Drink.” Beyond this, Korth has worked to become one of the area’s finest acoustic guitar players, and he does the heavy lifting in that regard on all parts of this album. Meanwhile, White’s slide guitar on “Water’s Rising” is quite unlike anything I’ve heard recently.
Listeners are advised that the album pushes at the edges of bluegrass with a bit of swing influence apparent, as well as the previously mentioned country-pop reverberations. It is a challenging album, one that rewards listeners who take the time to allow the unfamiliar to become comfortable.
One will leave The Awful Truth humming half a dozen melodies, and these will linger until the next opportunity for a listen occurs.
by Donald Teplyske