“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” by Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero
A Wanderer I’ll Stay
Lula Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Without drifting toward mimicry of that more renowned duo, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is their third album as a duo and their fifth together, and the result is a mature artistic vision, one that encompasses a range of original inspiration into a cohesive, intriguing set.

Jason Romero is a wonderfully interesting guitarist and banjo player. I’m not able to expound about the creative tunings he uses or the intricacies of his fingering technique because such is well outside my capabilities. I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything I’ve recently heard.

Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. Three of these songs are credited to her alone, while she shares songwriting credit with her husband on three others. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her declaration.

Like Rawlings and Welch, the Romeros have the ability to create new songs that sound generations old. The forlorn drifter of “Ballad of Old Bill” could have ridden old Dan in a Civil War-era song, while “Poor Boy” is seemingly crafted from remnants of Child Ballads.

Their original material is very strong, but so are their interpretations of songs from the days of 78s; the Romeros playfully and yet still reverently reinvent familiar sounds. Jason’s mournful “Goodbye Old Paint” is from the Lomax tradition, while their influences  for interpreting “Cocaine Blues” and “The Dying Soldier” go back to the 1920s.

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted.

This is a stunning acoustic folk recording.

“Memories and Moments” by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
Memories and Moments
Full Skies Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

On this, their second studio album, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien go together like soup beans and taters, or peanut butter and jelly. Memories and Moments conveys the love these two have for the songwriting process and the fun they have with the spontaneity of switching vocals, songs, and instruments.

Darrell Scott, born in eastern Kentucky, has won countless accolades for his songwriting, both on material recorded by more famous artists and that included on his solo releases. With an approach to Appalachian culture that is passionate and intentional, Scott has become one of my favorite songwriters in modern music.

Tim O’Brien became a bluegrass household name as a member of Hot Rize (formed in 1978), and his name is included on dozens and dozens of liner notes since, as a songwriter, guest vocalists, or session player.

Thirteen years after their release of the stunning Real Time (2000) and a year after the live disc We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This (2012)*, these Americana mavens turn in another classic—a 14-song album of superb songwriting, electrifying live-in-studio performance, and well-chosen covers of George Jones, Hank Williams, and John Prine, who appears as a guest vocalist singing one of his hits “Paradise.”

The album starts with a song written by O’Brien “Time to Talk to Joseph” about traveling in the hollers dark and deep. The clawhammer banjo adds a nice touch to harmonies from Scott. My favorite track is “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” it’s a song about how mining techniques have changed over time, while the miners’ struggle has not. Scott and O’Brien trade harmonies and lead throughout the song, which shows a different perspective on a song written by the two. The title track “Memories and Moments,” a song written by Scott, mourns the swiftness of life and being left with just memories.

“Just One More,” a song written by George Jones, has a reverence far classic country music, which Scott and O’Brien don’t veer far from. I like when artists create their own versions of songs by other artists but sometimes it’s really nice to “tip the hat” at the songwriter and create a memorial of their song. This is the case with the Hank Williams song “Alone and Forsaken,” where Scott and O’Brien create an eerie sound that one could mistake for the ghost of Hank himself.

Memories and Moments is a gem of an album.

*Editor’s Note: We normally try to review albums as close to the release date as possible, but this one was released about 18 months ago. We didn’t find out about this disc until months after its release, then it was assigned to a writer who had it for a while before backing out.

 

“Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions” by Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen
Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions
Dualtone Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Bluegrass music and the Texas songwriter tradition are about as different from one another as any other pair of styles in country music, but Robert Earl Keen is not the first master of the latter to put his hand to the former. Though Happy Prisoner doesn’t approach the brilliance of The Mountain—Steve Earle’s 1999 classic with the Del McCoury Band for which he wrote original songs—Keen’s ramble through a 14-song set* of bluegrass standards is a fun listen, unlike similar projects from some Nashville stars looking to crow about how country they are.

Keen eschews the familiar lineup of first-call bluegrass studio players in favor of his own band—plus banjo guru Danny Barnes—who “played to bluegrass in a tiny room until it shook and the music washed over us.” Barnes’ presence is most felt on the low groove “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” whose arrangement bears a welcome resemblance to the Groovegrass Boyz’ “Macarena,” and his idiosyncratic picking is a good fit for Keen and his band.

The result is a spirited freshness that makes up for the lack of technical brilliance. Keen’s easy drawl finds some new feeling in well-worn songs like “East Virginia Blues,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” and “This World is Not My Home.” And grassy numbers like “The Old Home Place,” “Walls of Time,” and, with harmony from Peter Rowan, “99 Years for One Dark Day” would please even old-school pickers. (However, Keen probably should have picked a modern song other than “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which simply can’t get any better than the McCoury cover or Richard Thompson’s own version.)

Guest vocals from fellow Texans Lyle Lovett (“T for Texas”) and Natalie Maines (a gorgeous “Wayfaring Stranger”) are good enough to make one wish Keen invited more of his peers to help him put some Lone Star shine on the high lonesome sound.

*There’s a deluxe version with a few extra tracks, which weren’t included in our review copy.

“Ionia” by Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys

Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys
Ionia
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Named for the Michigan city in which it was recorded, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys’ second album—to go along with a couple of EPs—is one of the unexpected musical delights of this spring.

Americana at its core, their sound is not easily categorized beyond that wide-ranging identifier. They use acoustic bluegrass instruments, but no one who understands the term would refer to them as a bluegrass band; their music is too breezy and playful, lacking the drive most associate with ‘grass. One can hear folk roots throughout the album, especially on “The River Jordan” and “Old Song,” and it certainly isn’t country. There is even a bit of jazz flavor in places (“Hot Hands”) and it swings a bit when encountering Thelma and Louise-type circumstances in Todd Grebe’s (Bearfoot, Cold Country) “Criminal Style.”

Americana it is, then.

Ionia possesses a warm, groovy sparseness that allows the group to project a clear and bright set of music that reminds one of Edie Brickell fronting a really strong acoustic band. It is gorgeous.

While Lindsay Lou sings the majority of the leads, and does so quite brilliantly, this is much more than a singer-centered endeavor. Joshua Rilko (all manner of stringed instruments, but primarily mandolin) and bassist (some of it bowed, and more including Peruvian cajón) PJ George sing most of the harmony on these songs, providing each with vocal depth that nicely balances Lindsay Lou’s leads. Mark Lavengood plays Dobro on the majority of the songs, while also singing “Sometimes,” an earthy number from an outside source, Ben Fidler; less tasteful are his circa 1981 basketball shorts.

While other bands may achieve a rich, close sound in professional studio environments, LL&F chose to record in the home of friends, playing and singing in a tight circle. While obviously rehearsed and professional, the resulting music feels spontaneous and genuine. Built around Lindsay Lou’s voice, equally important to the LL&F sound are Rilko’s mandolin and Lavengood’s steel.

“Everything Changed” is one of the group’s stronger songs: it builds to a controlled instrumental crescendo that is dynamic. “House Together” is another vibe-rich song of interest. Every bit as engaging are the album’s final tracks, “Ionia” and “Smooth and Groovy.” The title track is a moody instrumental while the closing song is a vocal showcase for Lindsay Lou. Recently relocated to Nashville, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys appear to have taken the ‘next step’ in their career.

Recommended if you like Crooked Still, the Show Ponies, and/or the Infamous Stringdusters.

“Wood, Wire & Words” by Norman Blake

Norman Blake
Wood, Wire & Words
Plectrafone Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Norman Blake has had a Zelig-like knack for appearing at key points when American acoustic country and folk music has connected to mainstream culture—his guitar work has been part of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969), The Johnny Cash Show on ABC (1969-1971), John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain (1971), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand (2007), and the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Cold Mountain (2003), Walk the Line (2005), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

But unlike Woody Allen’s protean protagonist, Blake was significant to all of those projects because his nature doesn’t change—he’s the deep root to the past that gets stronger with time, a trait that has made him (probably) more widely heard—but not as well-known—as fellow guitar giants Doc Watson and Tony Rice, whose work prods tradition forward with force and ingenuity.

Blake’s specialty, as the news release accompanying this 12-track, 54-minute album notes, is “turn of the century ragtime guitar picking,” a style of music that formed when music made by the middle class in their parlors and ex-slaves in their fields trysted in brothels and saloons before giving birth to the blues and jazz.

An unaccompanied Blake takes us back to that era as we hear his fingers glide over the steel strings of his 1928 Martin 00-45 guitar* to produce the clear, bell-like tones of “Savannah Rag,” the gently bumping bass line of “Blake’s Rag,” the warm and shady “Chattanooga Rag,” and the stately precision of “Cloverdale Plantation March.”

Though they sound like tunes that could have been adapted from the catalog of Scott Joplin, these four compositions are Blake originals, as are all the other songs on the album—something I wasn’t aware of until looking at the liner notes after listening to the whole disc a few times.

The only internal clue that Wood, Wire & Words contains contemporary material at all is “Grady Forester’s Store and Cotton Gin,” Blake’s tribute to his boyhood home of Sulphur Springs—when gas was 19 cents a gallon and stamps were three cents—which begins:

Now the evening sun is sinking down in Georgia
‘Cross the gravel roads, the red clay and the pines
That old whippoorwill
He’s callin’ from the hill
Of some long-forgotten time

“Joseph Thompson Hare on the Old Natchez Trace,” “Black Bart,” “The Keeper of the Government Light on the River,” “The Incident at Condra’s Switch,” and “Farewell Francisco Madero” are all splendid folk songs full of detail and drama, and written by Blake from true-life events. Listening to him tell these tales in his laconic singing style is as enjoyable as it would be to hear Bret Harte or Mark Twain read one of their stories aloud in front of a warm fireplace on a cold night.

The only other contributor here is, happily, Nancy Blake, Norman’s wife and duet partner on the Grammy-nominated albums (for Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year) Blind Dog (1988), Just Gimme Somethin’ I’m Used To (1992), While Passing Along This Way (1994), and The Hobo’s Last Ride (1996). The duo harmonize on the co-written “There’s a One Way Road to Glory,” a gospel message calling us toward freedom and away from war that is reminiscent of—and, sadly, as likely to go unheeded—as “Down By the Riverside.”

Blake’s brilliance at effortlessly making new music that sounds and feels as if it could be a hundred years old is what makes Wood, Wire & Words as enduring as anything else from the deep well of American music that Blake has been drawing from all along.

*Blake plays this guitar on all tracks, excepting “The New Dawning Day” and “”Farewell Francisco Madero,” on which he plays a 2004 Martin 000-28B Norman Blake Signature Edition guitar.

“Devil in the Seat” by the Foghorn Stringband

The Foghorn Stringband
Devil in the Seat
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

More than a decade ago, several youthful, old-time stringband-influenced outfits started to garner considerable attention on the fringes of what was shortly to become known as Americana. The Crooked Jades were one of the first and best that I encountered, while others including Old Crow Medicine Show and the Foghorn Stringband followed in their wake.

OCMS and Foghorn Stringband both released independent projects, signed with Vancouver’s Nettwerk Records, and unrelentingly worked the road in support of well-received, major-label debut albums.

One of those albums contained “Wagon Wheel.” The other didn’t.

While OCMS have become a commercial force with their rock ‘n’ roll meets folk and old-time blend of infectious party music, the Portland-based Foghorn Stringband have performed with great success to much lesser acclaim. They have continued to record music, releasing five or six albums (depending on which volumes are counted as band projects) that have more consistently held to the foundational elements of old-time stringband music.

Devil in the Seat, recorded in the atmospheric, traditional backwoods environs of Kauai, is another outstanding testament of what can happen when like-minded individuals are given opportunity to coalesce into a formidable performing unit. Their publicity sheet makes the adroit claim that Foghorn Stringband are less revivalists than they are curators, and such can be heard throughout this fabulous new release.

The group has always been known for balancing vibrant, lively music with down-tempo, bluesy takes, and there is no shortage of this dichotomy within the 16 songs and tunes included herein. The album kicks off with “Stillhouse,” learned from Virginia’s Matokie Slaughter and heads toward more familiar ground with “Mining Camp Blues” (performed as a show-stopping duet between Reeb Willms and Nadine Landry) and “Columbus Stockade Blues.”

A pair of tunes from Clyde Davenport are included, “Lost Gal” and “Chicken Reel,” while more contemporary selections include Garry Harrison’s “Jailbreak” and Tim Foss’s “Leland’s Waltz.”

My copy didn’t identify individual singers, but I suspect it is group co-founder and fiddler “Sammy” Lind who so excellently murders and buries “Pretty Polly” with the other remaining original member mandolinist Caleb Klauder handling most of the other male leads. The two have a natural style of instrumental interaction, with Klauder’s style being remarkable for the way he just lays back and drops in his notes. The banjo playing (never enough) is handled by Lind.

Hank Snow’s honky-tonk hit “90 Miles an Hour” is sped up just a tad and again demonstrates the group’s flexibility, as does their patient and true interpretation of the troubling “Henry Lee.” Foghorn’s male-female balance allows the group to explore the full range of old-time sounds, a significant positive of which they take advantage.

Whether you have been with Foghorn Stringband since before Weiser Sunrise or just caught up to the group with the excellent Outshine the Sun of a couple years ago, Devil in the Seat should give many hours of old-time pleasure.

“Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection” by Lead Belly

Lead Belly
Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Smithsonian Folkways
5 stars (out of 5)

Subscribe to The Lonesome Road Review (look in the right column) or tweet this article (tagging @LonesomeRoadRev) before midnight Eastern time April 7 for a chance to win one of two copies of the 10-track promo CD from Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways. Winners chosen at random.)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard of Lead Belly was from Van Morrison, on his masterwork album Astral Weeks (1968). Amidst the stream-of-consciousness lyrics there aren’t many concrete concepts or identifiable characters, but there in the title track Van is “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter/Showin’ pictures on the wall.” One biographer puts this down to Van’s being known to keep a poster of Lead Belly with him to put on the wall of whatever room he crashed in, giving us the picture of the diminutive Ulsterman home from the pub lying on the floor looking up at the legendary singer while drifting off to dream of all the weird, exciting American music that came from his father’s vast record collection.

The world of blues and jazz and country in the South was strange and distant even for American musicians of the rock generation, much less the son of a shipyard electrician living in a block of flats on Hyndford Street, Belfast. The distance was not a temporal one—the great musicians of the first generation of recorded music were either not long dead or, in dozens of cases, still alive and even performing—but rather one of geography, class, and (often) race. The story of how those distances were bridged in America, and much of the West, is one that begins with music, and the technologies of radio and recording that allowed individual souls to affect each other viscerally and emotionally in a way that only the highly literate were able to experience before.

Born Huddie William Ledbetter on Jan. 20, 1888 at Mooringsport, Louisiana, Lead Belly was one of the key musicians to come of age in the dawn of the recording era, and his peculiar talent as a gatherer of songs kept much of the music that black Americans sang in church, in the fields, and in prison alive long enough to be captured by machines—just as A.P. Carter, with help from his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle, did for the music of Appalachia.

Lead Belly did it so well that if one wanted to pick a place to start listening to and learning about 20th Century American popular music, a perfect place to start would be Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. Listening to more than five hours of his recordings on these five compact discs (including some live recordings and an entire disc of radio performances) it’s hard not to be amazed at Lead Belly’s ambit. He sangs both familiar and obscure—with musicianship and vocal styles both sophisticated and primal—in musical idioms like “play songs” for children, of-the-moment political broadsides, field hollers, work songs, minstrel tunes, bawdy blues, sanctified gospel, and—of course—prison songs.

Essential to understanding the man and his music—and the reason to spend $100 on the physical copy of this release—is the 140-page book that also occupies this gorgeous 12″ by 12″ package. Along with dozens of great photographs of Lead Belly and miscellaneous ephemera, there is documentation of and commentary on each track from project producers Jeff Place, Smithsonian Folkways archivist, and Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, who each contribute an essay that takes us far past Lead Belly’s legend to reveal the man.

That legend began in 1933 when John and Alan Lomax—the father-son team of song hunters who chased after music “uncontaminated” by modernity—found and recorded Lead Belly, who serving time for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—tellingly known as Angola. When they returned the next year, Lead Belly was pardoned by Gov. O.K. Allen— for “good behavior” past his minimum sentence time, perhaps prompted by a song Lead Belly wrote about Allen—and returned with them to New York City, where headlines like this beckoned folk fans with a curiosity for the exotic:

leadhed

There is no doubt that this legend—buttressed by a newsreel reenactment of Lomax “discovering” Lead Belly at Angola, and the singer’s customary stage costume of prison garb or coveralls—helped sell the man and his music, not too different from the way  musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to 50 Cent have done it. No one bothered to note that Lead Belly’s homicide convictions all stemmed from drunken brawls, not train robberies or home invasions. Because urban blacks weren’t keen on being reminded of farm and prison life, Santelli notes, Lomax didn’t try marketing Lead Belly to them, but went right at the white liberals who liked politics with their pop culture in a way that Tom Wolfe later identified as radical chic.

A question that has to be asked is what part Lead Belly himself played in this hokum. He was a poor black man from the South in a country segregated by both law and custom; the best he could expect was paternalism—which he certainly got from the Lomaxes. More unfortunate is the glaringly obvious realization that King Kong was released just a few months before Lead Belly was “discovered,” an uncomfortable fact that even today informs any serious discussion of race and entertainment in America.

Lead Belly certainly knew what was going on, and he eventually broke with the Lomaxes over both the money and his role as convict/bumpkin. It seems reasonable to think that he simply thought of himself as a musician who wanted to work, and decided to put up with the hassle. Though did write and record some political songs (“Scottsboro Boys,” “We Shall Be Free,” with Woody Guthrie, “Jim Crow Blues,” “Bourgeois Blues”), he never became an activist. “He simply was willing to ignore our radical politics,” Pete Seeger said.

The last few years of his life did bring more artistic freedom and satisfaction than the years preceding it, thanks to Lead Belly’s association with small-time record label owner Moe Asch, a folk enthusiast who also recorded Guthrie, Seeger, and Cisco Houston. Instead of orchestrated studio sessions, Asch would merely make some suggestions on what to record then let his artists record live around an open mic. Asch treated these recordings with much more respect than those before (no more albums with titles like Negro Sinful Songs), but that didn’t result in better sales.

Musicologists Frederic Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith also recognized the value of Lead Belly’s art, and recorded him in 1948 on a new open-reel tape deck that allowed for longer recordings (including Lead Belly’s spoken introductions) than the wax cylinders that most previous recordings had been made on. The fifth disc in this collection is devoted to selected tracks from those Last Sessions, which Asch released on his new Folkways label in 1952 as two 2-LP sets—another new format, supplanting 78s.

Lead Belly always hoped and even believed, it seems, that his work would lead to wealth and notoriety—and it did. The year after his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the Weavers sold half a million copies of their version of “Goodnight Irene,” helping folk music become noticed by enough post-war American record consumers to generate tremendous interest in the work of Lead Belly and his peers.

But none of this would have mattered if Lead Belly hadn’t been an excellent musician He didn’t just stand up and bash away on his trademark Stella 12-string guitar while simply belting out songs without nuance. As powerful as his voice could be, he always used it to serve the song and connect with the listener. Combine that—and his vast memory—with uncanny timing (“Out on the Western Plain,” “Rock Island Line,” “Alabama Bound” ) and deceptively intricate guitar work (“Fannin Street,” “Ella Speed”) and you have what Santelli calls “an old-time, old-school human jukebox of a performer” capable of playing just about anything someone waned to hear. Performances like “The Gallis Pole” and “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)” are as idiosyncratic and intense as anything done by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, or the Monroe Brothers (“The Gallis Pole” contains all the instrumental and vocal elements that Led Zeppelin tried to capture on their version, “Gallows Pole;” and “Black Girl” was reworked by Bill Monroe as the keening “In the Pines” and, in harrowing fashion, by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Unplugged).

There are countless musical phrases and lyrical allusions in this set that have echoed down through the years, and whether Lead Belly composed, modified, or simply recorded these songs, the shade his body of work casts is immense (click on any song title below to see how later musicians used Lead Belly’s material).

“The Midnight Special,” “John Henry,” “Take This Hammer,” “Alabama Bound,” “Good Morning Blues,” “Easy Rider,” “Duncan and Brady,” “How Long, How Long,” “John Hardy,” “Outskirts of Town,” “Black Betty,” “Stewball,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “On a Monday.”

“Irene (Goodnight Irene)” is, of course, the one song that Lead Belly will always be known for, though his version seems to be based on performances by Haverly’s Colored Minstrels of a composition by Gussie Davis. Its sentimental melody and macabre lyrics are made by Lead Belly’s mournful shout into an the kind of strange, unsettling experience that demands a response. It doesn’t seem right that it took the mawkish version of this song by the Weavers to introduce the post-war music industry to the man who, as much as anyone, created such a thing.