“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.

“Wherever I Wander” by the Snyder Family Band

Snyder Family Band
Wherever I Wander
Mountain Home Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

HOT! That will be your first reaction to the music of the Snyder Family Band. Siblings Samantha (16) and Zeb (19) are joined by their father, Bud Snyder, on this unusual CD. The younger Snyders were mentioned in the review of Adam Steffey’s New Primitive CD, but now they’re blazing their own trail.

They have their feet in bluegrass—Zeb Snyder was nominated for the IBMA Momentum Award in 2013 and 2014. “Highway Call” is a great bluesy number that can fit into a bluegrass or country music set. Samantha Snyder, playing violin since age three, plays fiddle breaks on this track that are as good as any fiddle music you’ll ever hear with her brother adding great guitar as well as singing lead. That’s how most tracks are set up, Samantha Snyder playing fiddle and sometimes mandolin, Zeb Snyder playing guitar and mandolin with their father playing the upright bass. They make a lot of good music for a trio.

That said, there are three potential—but minor—reservations about their music. Any time you use multi-tracking to allow one person to play multiple intruments (or sing multiple parts) it can sound great on the CD, but what do you do for live performances? Bands usually figure this out, but it is a question mark. They chose to have no vocal harmonies. They are excellent singers and this isn’t a bad choice, but harmony singing fills out the vocals. The other reservation is trying to figure out the market for their music. If you dump blues, classic rock, classic country, bluegrass and western swing into a pot and wash out all dividing lines, that’s where this CD goes. If your tastes are as broad as their ambitions, there will be a great match between you and their music.

I enjoy all those genres so I find nothing but enjoyment with their music. “New River Rapids” is an interplay between the mandolin and fiddle with an imaginative melody. “Trick Shot” is another fun instrumental and “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” glides along at breakneck speed while “The Peach Truck” is six and a half minutes of vamp that showcases their great talents.

“Wherever I Wander” is an interesting melody and lyrics that are modern gospel. You won’t hear many gospel numbers like this one and may lose the lyrics just listening to their instrumental work. “Swamp Music” is a number that you can imagine Jerry Reed singing, co-composed by Ronnie Van Zant and Edward C. King of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame and released in 1974 on their Second Helping LP. The Snyder’s version doesn’t have the hard edge of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but nothing is lost with the change. Zeb Snyder entertains you with some glass bottleneck slide guitar while Amanada Snyder rocks on her fiddle. Another Samantha Snyder number is “Hittin’ the Highway,” a mixture of blues, rock and country with some great instrumental breaks.

I don’t think there’s a section of bins in the Ernest Tubb Record Shop for this CD. They need to make a new one labeled “RRGM” and stick it there. You’re missing an experience if you don’t listen to this one.

“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.

“Sixty” by John Cowan

John Cowan
Sixty
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Realizing that John Cowan is sixty years old comes as a bit of a shock. Listening to this album and hearing that he remains in full command of the clear, powerful voice that’s been one of the best in American music—since his days with New Grass Revival on up to his work with the Doobie Brothers today—is no surprise at all.

The 12-track, 45-minute Sixty is expertly produced by Doobie Brother John McFee (who also played the  legendary lead guitar part on Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and pedal steel on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview), with a long, stellar list of Cowan’s peers on hand to create sounds big enough to support that great voice on a well-chosen list of songs.

“Things I Haven’t Done” sets the album’s expansive, yet unified tone (with Alison Brown on banjo and Rodney Crowell on backing vocal) that draws from the country/Americana side of things—Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi (and You),” some front-porch picking on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Why Are You Crying” with Chris Hillman (mandolin and vocals) and Bernie Leadon (banjo), and an all-star jam on Jesse Colin Young’s “Sugar Babe”—and from the rock/jam band sound—gritty covers of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.”

I’d have a hard time thinking of any other singers ambitious enough to tackle tracks as epic as the Blue Nile’s “Happiness” and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home;” each of these is a special favorites of mine in its original version, and Cowan sends chills up my spine with his performances here on perhaps his finest album yet.

“South Holston” by Jerry Castle

Jerry Castle
South Holston
My World Records

3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

A funny thing happened as I listened to this CD. I closed my eyes and imagined I was looking at the face of a cliff and embedded in it was a talking head. That’s the sound of a lot of this CD. It sounds like the compression was dialed up, the volume was dialed up, the sound hits you like a hurricane and someplace in the middle of all that is Castle singing. A good track to get the full effect of this is “Write My Own Ending.” The first few bars sound like a lot of country songs: you can hear the different instruments and they support the vocals. At :40 the background players step on their volume pedals and start to overwhelm the singer.

Castle’s enunciation takes getting used to. He has a habit of making adding syllables to words, and not in the way you expect some southerners to. For instance (in “Write My Own Ending”):

“… for this one feels wro-ong”

“… grow my hair like a hippie-uh”

It takes some getting used to. “Write My Own Ending” expresses a desire many of us have. We want to control our destiny, be in charge of our life. “Life Gets Better” has a nice intro, a strumming guitar and a lonely steel that plays a thread through the song. It then builds to his in-your-face volume. The song has a nice sentiment. Castle wrote or co-wrote all the tracks so the feeling of a personal point of view is probably just that. “Need You” is a nice song and has a little more space in the music than other tracks. You get more of a feeling of individual musicians instead of a wall of sound.

The central theme is about being yourself in a world that tries to mold you into some norm and the struggle to just survive. “Drown” is about a broken love affair. I think “Maybe” is, too, from what I can hear in the auditory assault of the instruments.

I wasn’t at all familiar with Castle before this one landed in my mailbox, but the album’s news release quotes some opinions that prove there are people that get into his music. It’s interesting that Castle feels this is country music (“… this record covers a wide spectrum of country music …”), while I mainly hear references to pop and rock from other people. I get that my kind of country is now second-shelf on radio and sales, but if you measure the distance between Stonewall Jackson and Kenny Chesney, then add that number to Florida Georgia Line you may get in the vicinity of Jerry Castle. It’s not bad music or writing, just different and no part of country that I can imagine. Go to iTunes and sample it.

“Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited” by various artists

Various artists
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited
Masterworks
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Americans love to look to heroes, but seldom for the virtues those heroes actually possess. After all, we put Andy Jackson on Federal Reserve notes and venerate Lincoln as a gentle, wise abolitionist reluctant to wage war. This sort of thing is expected in politics, where the current rulers always refocus history to justify their actions.

When it comes to cultural heroes, it’s less a matter of appropriation than amnesia. We all agree on who is supposed to be cool, but most of us aren’t sure why. The average American knows Johnny Cash as the man in black who went to Folsom Prison because he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But if Cash were alive today singing the songs he sung and saying the things he said at the height of his career, Bill O’Reilly would call him out as some antiwar hippie who’s soft on crime while some termagant on MSNBC would denounce him as a Christian Taliban.

Listen to “The Man in Black” and imagine what a time any current politician with that platform would have asking for votes and campaign money. Imagine self-help preachers like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes preaching that gospel.

Cash released Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian) in 1964, and Columbia Records wasn’t happy that one of their big country stars wanted to make a political statement—they had Bob Dylan to do that sort of thing (but not for much longer, it turned out).

Cash built the eight-song album around five songs from Peter LaFarge, also choosing Johnny Horton’s “The Vanishing Race” and adding his own “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves.” The result is damning indictment of how America has treated its Natives. It may be that because the allegations are specific while not fitting the accepted version of history, Cash was able to get away with it. It’s all just too true to be believed.

While Dylan’s broadsides (like “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) produced righteous indignation and his ideological anthems (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are a-Changin'”) turned cynicism into hope, the songs of Bitter Tears provoke only somber, resigned reflection—especially now so many years later on Look Again to the Wind.

Steve Earle happily dishonors the thoroughly dishonorable murderous fop of a general on “Custer,” and Kris Kristofferson drives home the hypocritical carelessness with which Americans treat those they’ve sent to war on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Both men sound a little more angry than Cash did on his originals, and rightly so given the fact that the last fifteen years or so of war have proved that we still think of fighting for a flag as something glorious.

Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all contribute vocals to at least one track, with Welch/Rawlings and the Milk Carton Kids playing on a handful. The Welch/Rawlings nine-minute take on “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” that opens the album is the track I’ll end up listening to the most, but the album’s closer—“Look Again to the Wind,” another LaFarge song not included on Bitter Tears and performed here by Mohican singer Bill Miller—is quite moving.

All the other tracks  are as gorgeous (or ornery, in the cases of Earle and Kristfferson) as you would expect from those artists, but they also carry the weight—50 years on—of unrightable wrongs and lessons never learned. Miller’s harrowing performance gives us a hint of the consequences of the irresponsibility that that caused it all.