Good Old Boys, Ari and Mia, Music Maker Relief Artists

Traditional Music for March 2019

The music business has a category called  "traditional." The label was originally used during the 20th century authenticity wars when a person singing a song had to have learnt it at his grand pappy's knee to be considered a real folk artist. No one has held that standard for quite some time and the information age has reduced the number of truly isolated communities to close to nil. These days it's hard to know exactly what traditional means in musical terms. You're sharper than I if you can come up with hard boundaries between labels such as traditional, old-time, bluegrass, acoustic country, and folk. 

A better point is to embrace the fact that ours is a mashable world. In this column I'd like to feature some recent releases and reissues that both step in tradition and sing the present.

Good Old Boys-Live, Drink Up and Go Home

Who's authentic and who isn't? By the 1970s it was already a stupid question. Need an example? How about the Good Old Boys? The band's traditional artist-for-sure was mandolin wizard Frank Wakefield (b. 1934), whose fingers blaze like a lightening strike in dry chaparral. He was born in Tennessee and comes from musical stock. There was also fiddler Brantley Kearns and bass fiddle player Pat Campbell, both of whom had been playing old-time music. The guitarist, though, was David Nelson, best known for his country rock/folk band New Riders of the Purple Sage. The banjo player on the cover looks familiar: Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. He sounds familiar too; on the band's double-album release of two 1975 Santa Cruz, CA concerts, Garcia is also the lead vocalist on the title track and "All the Good Times."

Garcia always insisted that bluegrass and old-time music were his favorites. In 1975, the Dead was on hiatus, but Garcia had long forged partnerships with down-home musicians. Could he play banjo? Listen to "Fireball Mail" and you've got you answer. Garcia, though, is probably not what you'll remember most. Perhaps you'll recall the tight twangy vocal harmonies. This was an affectation on the part of several band members, done so because twang was considered an "authentic" backwoods voice. Sounds pretty good, though, as you can hear on "Pistol Packin' Mama," "Teardrops in My Eyes," and "Lonesome Road Blues." Yeah, this project is filled with songs and tunes that often carry a label of their own: standard. But what you're most likely to recall is Wakefield's mandolin. He was and remains one of the standards by which expertise is measured. On "White House Blues" Wakefield lays down notes that are played somewhere around warp 5. And there's what is arguably his most famed composition, "New Camptown Races." There's a clean recording on this on the album, but it's worth watching to see how back in 2008, when Wakefield was 74, he could still play the daylights out of this tune.  ★★★★

Ari and Mia, Sew the City

Sisters Ari (cello/vocals) and Mia (fiddle/banjo/voice) Friedman take a Child ballad like "Unquiet Grave" or a sacred harp offering like "Sweet Morning" and make you think you're hearing the heirs to Jean Ritchie. Except that doesn't quite work as these Massachusetts musicians honed their music at the New England Conservatory of Music, not the hollers of the Southern Appalachians. They do, however, possess an uncanny knack for taking you on a musical journey that feels so rooted in tradition that only the clarity of the sound reminds you that this isn't some lost field recording from the age of song catchers. "Come on Home" is an original, but its banjo-driven melody and sweet lyrics such as There are stars, there is music but where are you? I am calling you home tonight/I can see through the fog to what I have to do/I’ll light the fire so it’s burning bright enhance our out-of-the-present experience. It's not until we get to the offbeat "Till I Die" that we experience the Friedmans as children of this age. It's a spare song like all their material, but it has quirky elements that evoke everything from the stage to The Beatles. The title track is also contemporary in content, though once again the instrumentation spills out from an ancient stream. You'll also wish to check out their string/drone cover of Joni Mitchell's "The Fiddle and the Drum." Ari and Mia make it sound like a minor key growling from beneath the earth's crust. I'm told that Mia teaches music in Springfield and at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley. Lucky students. ★★★★

Music Maker Relief Foundation, Blue Muse

For the past quarter century the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) has helped musicians having trouble meeting living and health expenses. That's way more artists than you think. It's easy to look at MMRF contributors such as Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal and forget that for every celebrity such as they, there are dozens of blues, folk, and acoustic country musicians barely scraping by. On this compilation CD you can hear Clapton scorch the strings on "Mississippi Blues" and Taj Mahal gives us a "John Henry" variant "Spike Driver Blues." Don Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops) is another name you might know. He gives us the delightfully retro "Polly Put the Kettle On," complete with old-time fiddle, mouth harp, and kitchen table sing along harmonies. But the delight of collections like Blue Muse comes from listening to artists whose names you probably don't know. You'll hear the hillbilly vibe of Sam Frazier, Jr. ("Cabbage Man"), the boogie-woogie groove of Alabama Slim ("I Got the Blues"), the mountain sounds of Martha Spencer and Kelley Breiding ("Sweet Valentine"), the wailing blues of Algia Mae Hinton ("Snap Your Fingers"), and a tickle-the-ivories jazzy cover of "Route 66" from Eddie Tigner, and you've still just scratched the surface of this gem of an album. Let me give a special call out to the artistCaptain Luke, whose work song "Old Black Buck" might rankle delicate sensibilities but I'll guarantee you won't forget his deep, glorious voice. He passed away in 2015 and his is decidedly a talent that went underappreciated. ★★★★

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