Chris Brashear
& Peter McLaughlin,
Canyoneers
(Copper Creek, 2003)

As I was hearing it for the first time, the sheer, unexpected loveliness of Canyoneers rather startled me. It's not that the idea of a rooted acoustic duo is exactly new, of course. The practice is as old as stringed instruments, and in America's folk and country music it's produced the immortal likes of the Monroe Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and the Lilly Brothers. Sibling duets, all. Chris Brashear and Peter McLaughlin are not related, but their harmonies are genetic in at least the metaphorical sense. Besides that, they play together as if they had never not played together -- McLaughlin on guitar, Brashear on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bass.

This is, let us say, a formidable recording, not just your usual good one. Good folk/roots/Americana albums are, God bless 'em, in no short supply these days. However much you love the music and try to keep up with it, you know at any given moment that out there are extraordinary performers you have yet to hear or, worse, hear of. All you can do is hope that circumstances will eventually lead you to them. Circumstances led me not long ago to the recording we are here considering, and I am pleased to report that as I gaze out upon it, I notice that the world has taken on a rosy hue.

What is not to love about Canyoneers? I guess you can complain, if you are so inclined, that it ends after 41 minutes and 13 seconds, but you can always just play the damn thing over again, as I have found myself doing -- and that's something I rarely do, regardless of how much I like what I've heard. But within the first few notes of the first song, Brashear's sort-of Celtic-tinged "Sad Parting, Sad Goodbye" -- perhaps not the most obvious title with which to introduce an album -- I knew I was hearing something special.

Yes, yes, in a broadly general way, this is how Norman Blake sounds when he's paired with Nancy Blake, Rich O'Brien, Tony Rice, Peter Ostroushko or whomever. Fortunately, that is happily irrelevant. Brashear and McLaughlin stand well and tall on their own, with songs, instrumentals and arrangements, not to mention exemplary yet restrained picking skills, that stick in the head and echo in the soul even in the silent aftermath. The vocals are high and clear, but never sappy in the lamentable fashion of, say, a '70s west coast country-rock band.

Southwesterners both, they place their songs in at least implicit western -- though, with one exception (the irresistible closer "Round Up Time in Heaven"), not cowboy -- landscapes. Theirs is a west of canyons, mountains, mines, farms and raging rivers, always informed by the appropriate musical traditions. McLaughlin's "Lost Canyons" is set to the "Bonnie Dundee" melody that the later folk song "Railroad Corral" (circa 1910) also appropriated. (And what is a tradition good for if not looting?) The grim murder ballad "Open Pit Mine," credited to D.T. Gentry, could have been sung a century ago. Brashear and McLaughlin know their stuff so well that they have no need to dig up chestnuts or saddle up warhorses. Along with their inspired originals, they look to little-known composers (Loy Clingman, Harold Russell) and the least-covered of Alton Delmore tunes, and they make you wonder how these songs managed to escape being ones we've all heard a zillion times.

You're missing more than just another decent, able recording if you let this one get past you.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 27 September 2003



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