Greg Blake,
Songs of Heart & Home
(independent, 2015)

In my mind, which speaks from long years of exposure, bluegrass hatched in the state of Colorado is as likely as not to be the soft-core variety. Honorable exceptions exist, of course, but I doubt anyone disputes that it's pop-tinged bluegrass-lite that largely shapes the Colorado sound.

These days the bands that traffic in it are flocking to be identified as "Americana" acts, at least when they aren't vying for gigs at bluegrass festivals. When I am reviewing one of their albums, I am forced to set aside my preference for harder, in-the-tradition bluegrass and approach it on its own terms. Not always easy.

Songs of Heart & Home is easy. If veteran bluegrass singer and ace guitarist Greg Blake lives near Denver, he grew up in southwestern West Virginia, where he absorbed this Appalachia-bred genre in its natural environment. The CD focuses on good songs in the styles that defined the character of bluegrass, ranging from gospel to country to folk, in its formative years. Though some master pickers (Sally Van Meter, Laurie Lewis, John Reischman, Blaine Sprouse) join in the effort, except in the occasional instrumental the stress is always on Blake's crisp-as-a-waterfall voice, pleasingly suited to the stories and feelings the songs convey.

More than anyone, Blake reminds me of Bill Clifton, who helped expand recognition of the old Southern rural sound associated with mountain music, the Carter Family, early hillbilly and more. Clifton, who sang in a smooth voice, had an exemplary ear for sweet, tuneful material. Back in those days his albums on County, Starday and other specialty labels introduced me to songs I've treasured ever since. Like Clifton, Blake is no high-lonesome singer, but he's no less a powerful, soulful interpreter than those who take a fiercer approach. While his songs are mostly of more recent vintage than Clifton's, they're as much inhabitants of that melodic and emotional universe.

Of the 13 cuts the sole chestnut is the Johnny Cash standard "I Still Miss Someone," which I would have thought I'd heard about as much as I cared to. Yet Blake embraces it with a loving, irresistible sincerity. "Thinking About You" is strong enough to discourage comparison to the Bill Monroe original. The effect, in fact, is to draw attention to one particularly fine song among the many Monroe composed; given the man's powerful and consistent output over the decades, it's shockingly simple to overlook gems like this one. I've never heard a lousy version of Ian Tyson's masterly "Summer Wages," which I think migrated from a later Ian & Sylvia record into the bluegrass repertoire with J.D. Crowe's celebrated New South (Rounder, 1975). Still, Blake's version launches me every time into a reverie of towboats, slippery city shoes, stands of timber and dreams of the season -- an experience of hard work and bitter disappointment set to a gorgeous melody. "Wages" happens to be among my favorite songs of all time, and the way Blake sings it, it sounds as if it's one of his, too.

The real heart-stopper, though, is Albert Brumley's "Dreaming of a Little Cabin," which is the sort of venerably Victorian heart song Clifton did so memorably. Albert Brumley, who wrote it, also composed the Stanley Brothers classic "Rank Stranger" as well as "This World is Not My Home," the template for Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home." There are lots of early country songs about mountain cabins, mother and Heaven, but this one aches and longs more achingly and longingly than most. Joined by the silver-throated Claire Lynch, Blake delivers a reading for the ages.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 March 2016

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