By Larry Stephens
Most fans of bluegrass and country music are familiar with transition stories: Harold Jenkins (rock ‘n’ roll) to Conway Twitty; Marty Raybon, bluegrass to country (Shenandoah) back to bluegrass; the Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys, from southern gospel to country. You don’t often hear of a transition from traditional Irish music to bluegrass, but Irish music is viewed as one of the foundations of bluegrass and many familiar bluegrass songs have Irish roots, such as “Raglan Road,” “Colleen Malone” and “Katy Daley.”
The Willis Clan offers two CDs. Roots is Irish music with a combination of vocals and instruments that may not be familiar to many. You’ll hear a bass, a violin and a banjo, but there’s also an accordion, whistles, pipes and a bodhran. Your first thought may be that you know nothing about this music, have never heard it, but as you listen the songs have a ring of familiarity. You may have never heard “Ship of the Line” or “Jack B”—all the tracks were composed by the Clan—but you’ve heard this style of music on TV and in the cinema. It’s closely related to Celtic music and, without splitting hairs over origins, you’ll hear similar strains in Lord of the Rings. It will be familiar if you’ve ever been to a Celtic Woman concert (I highly recommend the experience) or listened to Enya.
The Clan ably performs the music. They are very good singers and musicians. These are the twelve children (whose names all begin with “J”) of Toby and Brenda Willis. Rather than attempt telling their stories here, visit their web page and read about each of the children. (Also visit a page telling of a tragedy that befell the family. Given the time frame, these must be the siblings of Toby Willis.)
And now they have added bluegrass to their repertoire. Again, all tracks are originals by the family (lyrics on their website) and most of the family is involved in the CD. Father Toby played the synths. Musicians include the six older children (Jessica, Jeremiah, Jennifer, Jeanette, Jackson and Jedi) while the next four (Jazz, and Julie, Jamie and Joy Anna on “Butterfly”) contribute vocals. Only their mother and Jaeger and Jada sit this one out. Guest musicians include John and David Meyer (banjo: “City Down Below”, piano: “Plowin’ Song”) and Chris Wright (percussion).
You can hear some of the Irish in their bluegrass. Every band wants its own identity but the Cherryholmes are the comparison many people will make. They remind me of the Cherryholmes, especially the last two years of their existence. The Willis’ brand of bluegrass has a very modern sound and some modern lyrics. “The Fields Have Turned Brown” was a look at life away from home. The Clan sings about “Since I Left Home:”
It’s a little bit wilder
It’s a little more free
Discovering on my own
Love is a favorite topic of many genre, and one take on it is “Nervous Breakdown,” a reaction when someone the singer may love approaches. “Ode To A Toad” is weird from a bluegrass perspective, but a cute song. It’s recitation about a “squat and slimy – big and fat” toad who “in mud he wallowed – bugs he swallowed” until he tackled something too big.
Finally in desperation
Giving way to aggravation
Out he stepped into the street
Never knowing what he’d meet
A passing car was unaware
Of tragedy occurring there
And lickity split, berbump, ker-splat
The grup was gone…
The toad was flat
A pancake colored brown and green
The spectacle was quite obscene
Not Jimmy Martin. Maybe Lester Flatt?
They include a good gospel number, “City Down Below,” about God’s destruction of Sodom with just a hint of a segue to the present. My favorite is “Sadie,” a tragedy about a woman who mysteriously died. If they were making a classic bluegrass CD and filled it with a dozen more like this one they would be on target—allowing for the inevitable differences of opinion about anything musical.
Unless your music collection is nothing but Mr. Monroe and Dr. Stanley, there’s a lot to enjoy in these CDs: impressive picking and singing and a load of talent concentrated in this family that makes Tennessee their home.