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.
Seems like we haven’t had any old time music reviewed here for a while so it’s a pleasure to introduce Fiddle & Banjo AKA Karrnnel Sawitsky (fiddle) and Daniel Koulack (banjo), a Canadian duo who mine similar territory to Cahalen Morrison and Eli West but more closely resemble Appalachian scholars Anna & Elizabeth who we reviewed a few months back. They share the timeless quality that permeates traditional music, taking music from the past (some of it familiar to the listener from childhood songs or from the numerous visitations of musicians on albums over the past eighty years, and some not so familiar) and imbue them with a freshness, a new life, a new version for those musicians and listeners yet to follow.
The album title is derived from the duo’s stated intention of joining up the Canadian dance music they grew up playing with those age-old Appalachian songs and tunes that have influenced them and a host of other string players. The result is a superb (and superbly balanced) set of traditional numbers and their own tunes. Familiars such as Killin’ Floor, How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live and Arkansas Traveller rub shoulders with some fine inventions from the pair. Several of the tracks are medleys of traditional tunes (helpfully noted in the liner) and one cannot help but marvel at not only their dexterity but the telepathy in the playing, Koulack playing clawhammer style as Sawitsky fiddles creating a rarefied atmosphere that is just thrilling and at times spine tingling; whether playing a waltz time tune or setting up a reel they weave magnificently.
Excellent as these forays into an instrumental heaven are, the album is enhanced greatly by the presence of guest Joey Landreth who sings and plays Dobro on several songs here. His finely wearied delivery offers a touchstone for those who might find an instrumental album somewhat daunting. In addition the songs allow Sawitsky and Koulack freer rein to saw away in a less measured fashion than on the instrumentals as on the frenzy the whip up on Little Birdie. Landreth’s Dobro also provides some bluesy touches to Skip James’ Killin’ Floor and the closing magisterial reading of How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live. Finally, they get extra points for opening with a brief rendition of Pete Seeger’s Goofing Off Suite, a wonderful tune and going back to an original point one that will be familiar to fans of Raising Arizona.
Wrapped up in some fine packaging the album is a wonderful window into the past and will surely appeal to anyone who gets a nice chill when they hear that high lonesome sound.
When I reviewed Diana Jones‘ previous album, High Atmosphere I said it simultaneously sounded sixty years old and contemporary. Her careworn voice and superb ability to author heartbreaking tales of hardship and woe had a deep affinity to pre-war country recordings while the delivery by a stellar bunch of musicians led by producer Ketch Secor was top notch. Two years later and with a bunch of songs written while on tour Jones decided to eschew a studio with “isolation booths for a variety of musicians to overdub parts” and instead headed for the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee, a living museum and part of the Smithsonian Institute where she set up shop in a cabin with Matt Combs (fiddle, mandolin, banjo, mandola, viola) and Shad Cobb (fiddle, mandolin, guitar). With a log fire, one electrical outlet and one naked light bulb in the cabin they spent two days recording and the end result is this Museum of Appalachia Recordings album, 11 songs that are as old as the hills and as fresh as today’s milk.
Jones’ voice stands out immediately with its air of resignation and wearied tone. At times reminiscent of Karen Dalton she sounds as if she’s lived these tales. And such tales. Jones tries to show a redemptive path to God’s grace on O Sinner while Drunkards Daughter is a cautionary tale of how the sins of the father rest on the daughter. Song For a Worker is an uplifting song of praise to the Lord’s day when the workers rest and worship while Satan sets the temptation of Jesus to a mandolin driven jaunt. The overall tone of the album is reverential reflecting the God fearing folk of past times, humbled in their poverty, battered and bowed on a daily basis but buttressed by a belief in their faith and the promise of a better life thereafter. Misguided perhaps but there’s no denying that back in the days this belief allowed folk to endure hardship we can’t imagine now and Jones captures this with an astounding veracity. Simply put every song here is a delight and sitting back listening to the strings and things melting and meshing together one can almost imagine sitting in that log cabin and being transported to those yesteryears. An excellent record.