Michael Jerome Browne
& the Twin Rivers String Band,
Michael Jerome Browne
& the Twin Rivers String Band

(Borealis, 2004)

Here's a contemporary acoustic band from Montreal that interprets string band music of the southern United States about as authentically and soulfully as anyone could hope for. If it's not totally the way it originally was, then at least it's the way we throwbacks of the early 21st century might hope it was.

Michael Jerome Browne offers a definition, or rather a non-definition, of string band music in the liner notes. To quote: "It could be old-time, cajun, blues, country, western swing, bluegrass, ragtime, jazz, jug band, or any style you want. (It) has no race, creed, colour, religion, gender, sexual preference or social class."

Then he adds the one sentence that really helps: "Usually it's music for dancing."

I can't help but wonder which is the chicken and which is the egg in this case, but Browne's definition definitely describes to a T what he delivers in this, his third CD. A lot of it is music appropriate for dancing, including a hefty whack of tunes in the cajun style (five of 19). To list them, they are "You Done Me Wrong" (originally a Ray Price country hit from the 1950s, but here twin-fiddled into a cajun vocal duet), "Contredanse a Ti-Browne/Two Step de la Ville Platte" (another waltz, despite the misnomer), "Le Hack a Ti-Moreau" and "Belle."

Browne is a multi-instrumentalist of no mean talent, and he shines here on fiddle on eight tracks, plus mandolin and a variety of guitars, including steel-bodied Hawaiian guitar.

Most interesting to me is his fretless gourd banjo -- both the instrument itself, a modern version of the banjar brought to North America by Africans when they were kidnapped into slavery, and Browne's very traditional clawhammer and frailing playing styles. The result, on "Coo Coo, Arlington Town" (a Browne original about domestic violence co-written with B.A. Markus), and "Pay Day," another traditional tune here adapted from a version by Mississippi John Hurt, is as funky and rhythmic as you could desire. This gourd banjo doesn't plink, it plunks.

Interestingly, Browne showcases his banjo chops on guitar, too, in particular on a Doc Watson adaptation of a traditional North Carolina banjo tune "Rambling Hobo." Browne retunes the guitar like a banjo (sort of), then frails it as if it really were a banjo. The results are very cool indeed, similar to a style I've only heard before on a ukulele.

There are also some straight ahead fiddle tunes, like the opener, "Browne's Hoedown" (partly based on Leather Britches), and "Eighth of January" (a traditional tune that was later turned into the Johnny Horton hit "The Battle of New Orleans"), "Redemption Ground," and "May You Come & Stay" (another Browne/Markus original that sounds as old-timey as anything on the album).

What else? Well there's the western swing tune, "Out on the Western Plains," which surprisingly (to me) was originally composed by southern Afro-American bluesman Lead Belly. There are also some slower ballady numbers like the original "Still on My Mind," Lead Belly's (again) "Shreveport Jail," on which Browne plays a mean bluesy slide on the aforementioned Hawaiian guitar, "Arlington Town" and "Many Thousand Go," written by Robert David, but based on a slave song dating to 1867 and Henry Thomas's 1928 "Bull Doze Blues."

To round it out Browne throws in an upbeat, lilting "non-denominational gospel song" in a bluegrass manner, called "Just Look Up," and closes the CD with a gentle lullaby called "Whole Heap of Little Horses," his quiet vocals accompanied only by the rhythmic creak of a rocking chair.

Browne sings pretty much everything here, with an affectingly authentic rasp, joined occasionally by fellow band mate Jody Benjamin, whose vocal abilities include some unique yodeling on "Out on the Western Plains."

It's worth mentioning too that Browne grew up and lives in Montreal, where he no doubt learned the local Quebecois joual. As a result, he brings an easy authenticity to his delivery of the cajun French lyrics (which the liner notes thoughtfully translate into English, too). My guess is that the name of the band refers to the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers that join together at Montreal.

The album is clearly Browne's tour de force, and several of the songs feature him alone. But it would be wrong to overlook the spot-on back-up work of the Twin Rivers String Band, which includes Jordan Officer on fiddle, electric lap-steel guitar and guitar; Michael Ball on viola, fiddle and string bass; Mary Gick on banjo, and Jody Benjamin on ti-fer (cajun triangle), guitar, vocals and yodeling.

All in all, this is one of my favourite CDs these days, in which Browne delivers the variety he promises in his definition of string band music. I consider this man a Canadian national treasure, even if all his music relates more to the southern U.S. of an earlier time. He brings it alive.

by John Bird
4 February 2006

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