The quality and variety of string band music that arrives at Blabber’n’Smoke varies greatly. In addition it seems everyone in the world (and their brother) has picked up an instrument and released an album and the pending pile here has steadily grown. So to clear the decks an intensive listening session was in order (with appropriate fuel, thanks here to Innis and Gunn) resulting in the following cherry picked recommendations.
The Warren G. Hardings. Get A Life.
Named after the 29th POTUS the Hardings, from Seattle, are very un presidential with their frantic picking and scrubbing on the majority of the songs here. Hi energy bluegrass is the name of the game here with the band touted as similar to Trampled By Turtles although they come across as much warmer and, for want of a better word, authentic, without the jam band tendencies of the Turtles. While they’re able to lay back and deliver the excellent honeysuckled bliss of Anonymous Waltz and The Devil’s In The Roots begins as a gentle tip toed ballad before picking up steam the pell mell attack of the opening numbers, Treehouse and High & Low take the breath away. The playing is top notch with the classic interplay of guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo thrilling at times over a solid string bass thump. With a mischievousness apparent in Post Suburban Recession Era Blues (a slacker bluegrass anthem!) they’re at their best on the jitterbug syncopation of What Can I Say?
Hailing from Colorado the four piece Railsplitters initially appear more traditional than the Hardings. Two guys and two gals, they have the rippling mandolin, banjo and piercing fiddle down to a T and add some very sweet pedal steel on several of the songs. The opening song, Jackson Town, hillbillies into view with Lauren Stovall’s vocals well grounded as she praises her hometown while the band slap and pick excellently. Boarding Pass (that’s the way it is) lopes along in a very pleasant fashion with the pedal steel reinforcing the country feel but the following song, My World is nothing less than astonishing. A polished (to a sheen) country pop song that has a driving rhythm with some very fine mandolin playing throughout it’s elevated by an astonishing vocal performance from Stovall while there’s a powerful hook in the chorus almost demanding that the song should be blaring from the radio this summer. Elsewhere they capture a Carter Family wildflower sound on Where You Are while Family Waltz tears at the heartstrings in the best way. There’s a brace of instrumentals on the album allowing the band to show off their chops with Longs Peak a gentrified instrumental that recalls the work of The Nitty Gritty Dirt band on their album Symphonium Dream.
Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys. Somewhere Far Away.
Louisiana born, Missouri raised and now resident in Nashville Bradford Lee Folk comes straight out of the traps with a quintessential bluegrass song, Foolish Game of Love, on his album Somewhere Far Away. He really does have a “high lonesome sound” in his voice and the playing here is excellent with the fiddle in particular hauling all sorts of historical baggage as it flails away. If the remainder of the album was similar then it would be well worth listening to but Folk turns out to have the gift of writing what could well be called pop songs played within the bluegrass idiom and on several occasions he reminded me of the early John Hartford, writer of Gentle On My Mind. Folk’s light tenor voice floats over some very fine playing creating an oasis of calm on the wonderful Somewhere Far Away while The Piper swarms with a woody warmth that recalls Michael Hurley. Soil and Clay ends the album on a sombre note as Folk delves into mortality on an impressionistic ballad that is baroque in its twists and turns, almost at times like early Tim Buckley. A great album that deserves to be heard and the pick of the bunch here.