James Bryan & Carl Jones,
Cricket's Lullaby
(Dittyville, 2012)

Freeman & Williams,
Freeman & Williams
(Mountain Roads, 2012)

The Virginia-based trio Freeman & Williams revisit the rural harmony singing that emerged as a force in commercial hillbilly music in the 1930s and a precursor to the bluegrass of a decade later, though theirs is, if always respectful, a contemporary take on the style. The 13 cuts of Freeman & Williams encompass everything from folk material ("June Apple" and "John Henry," each in a charmingly creative arrangement) to pop songs (the 1920s-era "Too Long" and "Wrong Road Again," a mid-1970s Crystal Gayle hit credited here to Allen Reynolds, elsewhere to Richard Leigh).

The three, all well-regarded, Virginia-based veterans of bluegrass and old-time music, are fiddler/mandolinist Scott Freeman, guitarist Johnny Williams and bassist Jeanette Williams. The last two, a married couple, have previously recorded separately and together, most recently as participants in the widely admired, multi-artist Close Kin project (Freeman was there, too); see my review in this space on 5 November 2011. Here, the Williamses and Freeman take turns handling lead-vocal duties, and each acquits him- or herself admirably. Jeanette, in fact, is about as strong as any female vocalist on the current bluegrass scene. Her range on this disc alone is remarkable, taking on everything from heart songs and sacred meditations to tough outlaw ballads with unfailing assurance and conviction.

On Cricket's Lullaby fiddler James Bryan (best known to most for his work with Norman & Nancy Blake) and guitarist Carl Jones, of rural Alabama and rural Virginia respectively, hark back to the Southern folk sounds of a century ago. Theirs is not the driving music of the breakdowns but of the Appalachian tradition's more gentile moments. The tunes are mostly airs and waltzes, lovingly melodic, and -- a happy bonus -- mostly unfamiliar, though even the rare warhorse ("Bonaparte's Retreat") comes in unusual form. The occasional song, including the quiet but emotionally intense "Dear Honey," conveys the same understated quality.

Nothing flashy is happening here, just beautifully performed and considered music. Cricket's Lullaby makes for a deeply comforting sound.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 April 2012

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