Lotos Nile Music
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
I’m not sure why Kansas City songwriters appear so frequently upon my mental lists of favourites, but they do. Bob Walkenhorst, Rex Hobart, John Velghe, and Jeff Black are staples in my music diet, singers I return to with greater frequency than some whose names may be better known. The four listed have little in common, but each brings their obvious love for language to their recordings.
Jeff Black’s tenth album continues his unbroken sequence of artistic achievements. Stripped bare of accompanists and accoutrements, Folklore has been created in the spirit of a mid-60s Folkways or Vanguard release. Here the long-time Nashville resident is inspired by black and white memories of a family’s past, weaving a stirring collection of songs and stories tangibly connected to time, place, and people while sitting independent of an all-encompassing narrative.
Recorded over two days at the turn of this year, Black plays all the instruments (6- and 12-string guitars, banjo, harmonica), does all the singing, and wrote all the songs excepting a solitary co-write with his children Emerson and Zuzu. Listeners may find themselves hanging on each word Black delivers, anticipating the next turn of phrase that will provide enlightenment. Similarly, his clean instrumental delivery—whether it be the rolling banjo notes of “Cages of My Heart” or the flourishes of guitar within “Break the Ground”—will have listeners leaning in to discern the delicacy of his playing.
Whereas his previous B-Sides and Confessions, Volume Two emphasized the depth of Black’s bluesy palette, Folklore is less emotionally oppressive while retaining familiar elements of universal authenticity within his storytelling. When singing of his father’s “’63 Mercury Meteor,” Black touches on familial closeness and shared experience while crafting lines about “little drifters on a gypsy road” including “the sound of the snow falling into the leaves”—whether true or imagined, the communication of memory is paramount.
Inspired by his grandmother’s fading photograph gracing the cover, Black delves into reminiscences of family to construct cohesive portraits of lives lived on the periphery of his awareness. Sometimes the results are emotionally substantive, as within “Cages of My Heart” and “No Quarter.” Other songs, no less important within Black’s interpretation of time passages, are simple vignettes gathered throughout a aimless, youthful day on the “#10 Bus.” Anyone who has sought out the family farmstead will relate to “Decoration Day.”
“Sing Together,” dedicated to Pete Seeger, captures the joy most feel when given the opportunity to make music within a collective. “Break the Ground” revels in the freedom of a transient existence, much as Kristofferson (in whose voice Black appears to borrow for “Flat Car”) did with “Me and Bobby McGee” more than four decades ago.
When listening to Jeff Black’s singing throughout Folklore, I am reminded that there are few others—Darrell Scott, John Wort Hannam, and Eliza Gilkyson among them—who are able to connect so adeptly with this listener. Our life experiences—and those of their creations championed—are frequently entirely disparate, but through the use of melody and lyrical magic, imagination becomes an association of familiarity.