Tradition has always been important in Americana music whether it be listening to primitive recordings from the early 20th Century, still vital all these years later or reclaiming and updating the past. Think of The Band who opened up a wide American vista for the Woodstock generation or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal “Will The Circle be Unbroken” which introduced a host of country pioneers to a new audience. This drive to celebrate the past and indeed to achieve a degree of authenticity continues to this day with several fine artists we’ve reviewed here digging deep into the backwaters of American traditional music and bringing it bang up to date.
Hillfolk Noir, a four piece band from Boise, Idaho are a particularly fine example of how to go about this. With a string band set up they’ve sat around one microphone in an old street market to record this album. The 20 songs are all written by guitarist and main man Travis ward but the majority of them are updates on classic songs, tunes and themes that anyone familiar with the genre will recognise.
There’s no spit and polish here. The songs tumble out unadorned, raw and at times rowdy although the album takes some to warm up. The opening slide driven blues of Red Eyed Crow sounds somewhat weedy, a bit like a skiffle band warming up while the following Dying Bed Blues stumbles somewhat. Blessed be then the opening chords of Run Mollie Run where they suddenly seem to be much more self assured, from here on in the remainder of the album is a delight. Washboard Blues channels Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee while Do It Again vamps splendidly with musical saw adding another dimension. With ragtime picking and call and response songs the album as a whole is a bit like listening to a Smithsonian Institute archive. The highlight is The Love I Thought I’d Never Know, a ballad of unrequited love that fails to surmount class barriers.
Hillfolk Noir manage to capture the essence of American music in spades. They also have one of the best press quotes We’ve seen in a long time, namely “Much better than the crap on the radio”(Amy Garrett, Boise Weekly)which just about sums up this review. Skinny Mammy’s Revenge is one part of two releases, both “on-location field recordings, ” the other being “Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary” with the band performing live in an old prison block at the historical Old Idaho Penitentiary and an album I’m off to search out.