Some records just capture the essence of an old America, rooted in the hills and woods and the songs and tunes that early immigrants brought with them to the new world, sounds that informed the pioneers of what we now call country music. Generally it’s relatively unadorned, strings and a few other things, voices raw and elemental, spooky or life affirming, summoning up deep dark woods or back porch pickin’ and grinnin’. Blabber’n’Smoke has reviewed several artists who brilliantly evoke this old time essence, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Pharis & Jason Romero and Anna & Elizabeth come to mind. Time then to add the duo of Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee, AKA The Lowest Pair to this club as Fern Girl & Iceman just oozes with that rarefied mountain air.
Basically a duellin’ banjo duet Winter and Lee are rooted in the Clinch Mountain musical style, one of the backbones of Appalachian music and listening to the album is somewhat akin to being near the clear mountain streams and wooded glens of Georgia. Recall if you will the early outdoors celebration of the river in Deliverance, the grand beauty of a wilderness and the music that grew out of it. The pair capture this perfectly with banjos strummed and picked, occasionally extended into virtuoso breaks, the vocals, Lee a rough-hewn tenor and Winter a little girl lost, her voice recalling Victoria Williams at times. In fact listening to her one can imagine that this is what Sissy Spacek would have sounded like if she had made a rootsy mountain album back in the seventies. Swapping lead vocals and harmonising excellently together the pair add guitar, tambourine and harmonica to their banjo playing while a spare backdrop of bass, drums, lap steel and fiddle offer occasional embroidery.
There are 11 songs here and all are of the highest quality. There’s the halting Stranger with its skeletal string picking, the old time waltz of Trick Candlelight with its delightful lap steel adornment and the driving ballad Sweet Breath which sounds like it came from the Child ballads. Waiting For The Taker is proof positive that a pair of banjos can summon up a storm of emotion as they flail together in a modal fashion which again recalls old time ballads of dread and doom. It’s chilling in its icy beauty with a tremendous instrumental break which recalls Indian sitar scales. The best is left to the end with the closing song How Can I Roll a perfect summation of the album, a frail cry into the wilderness with tentative picking, aching harmonies and ominous fiddle all folding into a plaintive lament. Overall Fern Girl & Iceman is an album that is fresh and timeless and they get extra points for naming themselves after an obscure John Hartford word poem. Check it out.