Fletcher Bright & Bill Evans,
Fine Times at Fletcher's House
(Native & Fine, 2013)

Ivan Rosenberg,
Oldies & Old Time
(Vole-O-Tone, 2013)

Two exceptional recent releases show how old-time Appalachian sounds can continue to feel vital in the 21st century. Both are the work of established, much-respected musicians whose ceaselessly creative engagement with the tradition can only engender a sense of wonder in the listener.

Ivan Rosenberg, an American who has recently relocated to Toronto, his wife's hometown, boasts a rich resume as producer and banjo and dobro player. He is master of a rarely heard instrument, the resophonic banjo, essentially a blended version of the two above-named instruments. On Oldies & Old Time he plays it, clawhammer banjo, and dobro separately on this solo outing, recorded live in the studio. (On the one non-live cut, the lilting original "Maryville Waltz," he adds a Martin D-16 to the resophonic guitar.) The title takes its inspiration from Rosenberg's observation that some pop songs eventually become folk songs. "Plenty of classics," he predicts, "will still be played around the campfire by people and/or robots a hundred years from now."

The oldies are the likes of "Georgia on My Mind," "The Christmas Song," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "You Don't Know Me," the first two arranged as instrumentals. Perhaps because it's sung, the last of these, a 1956 hit for Eddie Arnold who co-wrote it with the well-known country/pop composer Cindy Walker, seems slightly awkward, at least to my admittedly imperfect ear. "Blue Eyes," on the other hand, is a stunner. Possibly that's because it's always had the resonance of an antique traditional ballad, even if Fred Rose wrote it as recently as 1945.

Rosenberg, who sings in an intimate, whispery growl with the instruments tuned low, turns in a stirring performance of the ordinarily execrable "Danny Boy." I'd judge that as close to a miracle as one is likely to encounter in this world, and I stand in awe. He handles the Appalachian (and Appalachian-styled) material with a veteran's expert grace, which means that when you hear the songs and tunes, however well you think you know them, they're surprisingly fresh and moving. I am thinking particularly of "Willow Tree" and "Roving on a Winter's Night," but they're all pretty impressive.

Fine Times at Fletcher's House unites Tennessee fiddler Fletcher Bright and California banjo man Bill Evans in instrumental duets drawn from the old-time and bluegrass repertoire. The warhorses are few, and even those are done so well and so inventively that you won't mind renewing the acquaintance. Mostly, these are tunes you will have heard rarely, if at all. It would be hard to match Bright and Evans, two roots-immersed veterans, for talent and taste. The playing is restrained and tune-oriented. Warmth exudes and light shines from every track.

Even if Fine Times and Oldies & Old Time were the only music of its kind to appear this year, we'd all be well supplied.

music review by
Jerome Clark

31 August 2013

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