Andy Cohen,
Road Be Kind
(Earwig, 2015)

Duke Robillard,
The Acoustic Blues & Roots
(Stony Plain, 2015)

If these two albums are not precisely identical in scope, they share a common sensibility in their mutual commitment to acoustic music and to America's grassroots sounds. Duke Robillard, a co-founder of Roomful of Blues in 1971, has been releasing electric-blues recordings for decades at a dizzying rate, pretty much annually since he signed with the Edmonton, Alberta-based Stony Plain. Stellar guitarist Andy Cohen, though much less recorded, has been a fixture on the folk-blues scene since the 1960s.

Road Be Kind and The Acoustic Blues & Roots are works of the heart. Both visit older songs and styles, mostly folk in Cohen's case, mostly blues, hillbilly and early jazz in Robillard's. Robillard brings in other musicians, and Cohen doesn't, choosing to back his vocals with his own authoritatively picked guitar. I spent part of September happily listening to one after the other. One flows easily into the next, as if two differing but compatible visions of America as music. It's a whole lot more an expression of authentic Americana than the current would-be genre that promotes itself as such. If self-identified "Americana" as often as not has the hollow resonance of roots music without roots, the roots here are deep and undeniable.

Much of Road's content consists of material from the pens of folk-era songwriters, the best-known of them -- relatively speaking -- the late Bruce "Utah" Phillips, who in his day composed an abundance of strikingly realistic songs set in the Western landscapes where he grew up and always viewed with no little ambivalence and skepticism. "The Goodnight-Loving Trail," one of his rare cowboy songs, counts by common consent among his masterpieces in its clear-eyed depiction of a broken-down drover. Cohen's gruff, intimate vocal feels as if rising up from the weathered throat of the character himself. In a pleasant surprise, he revives an all-but-forgotten Frummox song, from the late Texas singer-songwriter Steve Frumholtz. He gives it the title it should always have had: "High Country Caravan." For reasons known to himself, Frumholtz called it "Song for Stephen Stills." Cohen does it splendidly, though the song, notwithstanding an artful melody, still seems a tad on the wordy side.

Road Be Kind (from a traveling musician's anthem by Scott Alarik) never flags, offering up an assortment of full-bodied songs and tunes, among them a couple of unanticipated turns into the Scottish and Irish traditions. The former is personified in "Ten & Nine," an early 20th-century labor protest by Mary Brooksbank. Cohen notes, "Liam Clancey [sic] did this song, but I never heard him do it." If Cohen is reading these words, it's on Clancy's Irish Troubadour (Vanguard, 1999), and it's definitely worth seeking out. And while we're at it, no, the Vietnam war -- generated by misguided Cold War geopolitical strategy and not by corporate conspiracy -- wasn't fought "on behalf of the mineral interests," as a liner-notes assertion would have it. Then again, Cohen may be jokingly recalling a college-dorm bull session from the bad old days. Those I participated in fingered the international rice trade. Ah, youth.

I hope Duke Robillard will record more albums in the vein of Acoustic Blues & Roots, the warmest and most accessible of his many releases (or at least the releases I've heard; probably, only he has heard all of them). For one thing, Robillard's singing comes across as rather more natural and less strained than it does when he's fighting to be heard against loud electric instruments and pounding drums. Overall, he just seems to be having a better time in the cozy backyard this album conjures up.

In the promotional material that arrived with the review copy of the CD, Robillard talks of his affection for the range of American vernacular music. Allowing himself to expand beyond his usual blues base (though happily without putting it entirely behind him), he opens himself to songs by Stephen Foster, Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers and Robbie Robertson (whose "Evangeline" is sung by the marvelous Sunny Crownover). The CD debuts with a relaxed guitar instrumental of "My Old Kentucky Home," maybe the first great American pop tune, and ends with Robillard's own Hawaiian-flavored "Ukulele Swing."

I'm pleased that Robillard likes Hank Williams' neglected "Let's Turn Back the Years" as much as I do. There's also a suitably good-humored treatment of Tampa Red's hokum inquiry "What Is It That Tastes Like Gravy?" "Someday Baby," from Sleepy John Estes, brings back ancient memories of a day I stood in the bitter Illinois winter waiting for a train while Estes's lyric That old chilly breeze/ Comes blowin' through your BVDs played inside my head. Muddy Waters (1955) and Bob Dylan (2006) each later rewrote the song -- Muddy called his "Trouble No More" -- but alas, neither resurrected its funniest verse.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 November 2015

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