Eric Brace & Karl Straub
Red Beet Records
5 Stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Eric Brace and Karl Straub have created a most ambitious album based upon and extending “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a song from the California Gold Rush era. Written by John A. Stone, the folk song’s many, and varied, verses sketch the turbulent relationship between two east-Missouri lovers, Isaac and Betsy, longing for adventure and riches beyond Pike County.
Recorded by various singers—Johnny Cash told part of their story on Sings the Ballads of the True West nearly fifty years ago, Pete Seeger had done the same a few years prior, and both Suzy Bogguss and BR549 have recorded renditions in the past decade—the story take the couple from Missouri across prairies and deserts, through tribulations and loss, and encounters with Brigham Young, marauders, and cholera, until they reach Hangtown—Placerville—and the epicenter of the California Gold Rush. In the original song, which is based around an old English melody, things don’t work out so well for Besty and Ike, and jealousy ends their relationship soon after their arrival.
Eric Brace—writer, musician, song creator, singer, and Placerville native—sensed that there was more to Bestsy and Ike’s story, and set himself the task of revealing it. After all, they had come some two thousand miles: seems a shame that the story should end with her calling him a lummox as Ike storms away, declaring them divorced. Brace prised a novel’s worth of narrative out of what brought Ike and Betsy to California—turns out, they accidentally kill Betsy’s pa before departing Missouri—and what the star-crossed lovers meet after the dissolution of their relationship: hard work, a gold strike, murder and theft, mistaken identity, self-discovery, and finally reconciliation and acceptance.
Karl Straub, a Washington, DC bandleader and guitarist, collaborated with Brace to extend and solidify the components of the 22-track concept album. He wrote several of the songs, shared writing on a few others, and assumed the pivotal persona of the doomed Walter Brown.
With Brace ably assuming the role of Ike Wilkins, it was up to friends to populate the balance of the cast, and Brace did a fine job of finding just the right voices for these roles. Kelly Willis becomes Betsy Maloney, inhabiting the troubled protagonist, and delivering the type of singing we’ve come to expect over the past twenty-five (!) years.
Meanwhile, Tim O’Brien propels the story as dancehall bandleader Jeremiah Jenkins, providing lively interludes advancing the tale and summarizing events. Darrell Scott drops by to give substance the James Marshall, the man who discovered the nugget that set off the Gold Rush. Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding), Jason Ringenberg, and Andrea Zonn take on smaller, but not lesser, vocal roles. Frequent Brace collaborator Peter Cooper provides select vocal support.
The late-Dobro© legend Mike Auldridge, Buddy Spicher, Pat McInerney, Casey Driessen (whose playing on “Pike County Rose” is stunning), Fats Kaplan, and Brace’s Last Train Home pals Kevin Cordt and Jen Gunderman are among the many who provide instrumental accompaniment, as does O’Brien, whose banjo punctuates “Hanging Tree” most mournfully.
“El Dorado Two-Step” decidedly jumps, as befits a tune about an exuberant boomtown dance. Crossing cultures and borders, on “From Pearl River to Gold Mountain” Zonn absolutely nails the experience of an escaped slave laborer. Scott breezes through “King Midas,” seemingly effortlessly communicating the despair of a man who came toward financial independence only to have it exceed his grasp.
The tension builds over the course of the album, reaching its satisfying crescendo as Betsy and Ike reunite to bring a murderer to justice. Deviating from the song cycle, Brace and Straub elect to have Brace narrate the climactic events in prose, allowing the couple to rediscover and renew their love afresh—and free of blood—in “So Many Miles.” This is the album’s only shortcoming as one wonders at the song that might have told of the scoundrel’s comeuppance.
Like Emmylou Harris’s The Ballad of Sally Rose, Hangtown Dancehall holds together as a concept album of country-folk balladry. Creating a flawless narrative in song—supplemented by Brace’s narrative connecting and elaborating the events—was most obviously no easy task, and Brace and Straub are to be commended for their faultless execution. As did those of Sally Rose, Hangtown Dancehall’s songs stand together to create a formidable and dramatic listening experience, but individual songs lose none of their intensity when heard in isolation.
Hangtown Dancehall is absolutely brilliant, deep and listenable, creative and grounded. In creating an abstract, speculative historical and musical journey that becomes substantive, Eric Brace and Karl Straub have taken their art to the highest of levels. The accompanying booklet and packaging—featuring woodcuts from Julie Sola—is nothing short of outstanding, and its libretto provides the context necessary to fully appreciate the measures and efforts Brace and Straub have taken to create a project that is destined to far exceed most traditionally-based Americana projects we are likely to experience this year.