“Before Bluegrass” by Heather Berry & Tony

Heather Berry & Tony
Before Bluegrass
Blue Circle Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Having just received this 2008 release, I am a bit embarrassed that such a bounty managed to pass me by for over a year.

Relatively unheralded, Before Bluegrass is an impressive and worthwhile collection of mountain parlor music of interest to those who yearn for the sounds of a much earlier and seemingly simpler time.

Heather Berry’s voice has been included on the most recent Daughters of Bluegrass projects and she has been leading her own group for almost a decade. Her husband Tony Mabe is a North Carolina native who has played with the Jeanette Williams Band. Both only 21 years of age, this is their first project together.

The duo trade off three instruments — guitar, banjo, and autoharp — with no song featuring more than two of these. The album was recorded off the floor, and no punch-ins, vocal tweaking, or overdubbing were included. As a result, the album radiates a warmth and simplicity that allows the listener to picture the couple performing only for them.

Given its thesis of presenting music that predates bluegrass — recalling the Carter Family and Monroe Brothers — the banjo is played clawhammer style, and provides a rhythm that drives the melody on songs such as “Scissors and Paper” and “Creecy Greens.” The autoharp selections are wonderfully presented, a lovely contrast to the guitar playing that accompanies it.

Throughout the album, including on “When the Sun Comes Out Again,” it appears that one is listening to a guitar player of greater renown that Tony Mabe.  The picking on “None For Me But You” and “A Prisoner’s Prayer” is most impressive.

The majority of the songs come from the prolific imaginations of Dixie and Tom T. Hall, and almost all contain sentiment and structures that could easily have been written in the 1800s. “Hazel Creek” has the couple trading off verses “Mockingbird” fashion, while “Hound Dog Blues” could be pulled from a Charlie Poole or Dock Boggs side.

“Can You Hear Me Now” was previously featured on Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s 2007 release More Behind the Picture than the Wall, and has a well-executed, challenging country harmony. The song benefits from the female perspective of this rendition.

Heather and Tony have included three songs of their own, and these stand unabashedly alongside those crafted by the far more experienced Halls. The strongest of these tracks is “Public Enemy Number One,” which reflects on the impact of choices made when one falls for a career criminal, in this case John Dillinger.

While decidedly not a bluegrass album, there is no reason why those who appreciate bluegrass music would not enjoy Before Bluegrass. It is a wonderfully executed celebration of pre-war country music, played and sang with clarity and passion.

by Donald Teplyske

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