The Crooked Jades,
The Unfortunate Rake: Vol. 1
(self-produced, 2000;
Copper Creek, 2001)

Seven Sisters:
A Kentucky Portrait

(self-produced, 2000;
Copper Creek, 2001)

The Crooked Jades are the best old-time aggregation I've heard since Dirk Powell, Tim O'Brien and John Herrmann got together a few years ago to do Songs From the Mountain. This is a group of seven fine musicians who aren't content to merely copy as closely as possible the recordings of their predecessors, letting us hear, for example, what those 1928 recordings of Lamar Burskin and the Ring-Tail Dodgers would have sounded like recorded in digital stereo (more imperfect and out of tune, most likely). Instead they start with the tropes of old-time music and then enlighten it, restructure it and just plain reinvent it, making new musical suits out of very old cloth.

The Unfortunate Rake contains 21 tracks, starting with a spirited medley of old fiddle tunes that has a surprisingly full sound, and is at once joyous and majestic. "Fly Around (My Pretty Little Miss)" gets a slow and mournful reading propelled by evocative harmonies. By the third track, we've heard music of Hoyt Ming and the Pepsteppers, Frank Blevins and His Tar Heel Rattlers, and the Georgia Crackers, but it's far more alive than ever before, with perfect intonation and musicianship. The Crooked Jades can really play and sing, which is more than could be often said of the field's pioneers, and what's more the Jades seem to be having more fun than their musical ancestors, who frequently seemed to be doing little more than sawing away for the $25 per side they would make.

There's a change of pace with band member Jeff Kazor's original ballad, "Angel of Mercy," which has a lovely modern sensibility. Lisa Berman does a sweet job on Hank Williams' "The Evening Train," both vocally and on Hawaiian-slide guitar. Tom Lucas shows off his writing skills with "Lucy Molen," a bluesy ballad, and by this point we've become aware that this is above all a versatile band; every tune and song has a different sound to it, and the variety continues with "Old Joe," an intense song with a heavy backbeat, old-time music at its most innovative.

Next, the mountain ballad rears its maudlin head with "Lonely Grave," on which Lisa Berman and Stephanie Prausnitz hit a vocal blend that wouldn't shame Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens. Kazor's "Candy/Girl Slipped Down" is another highlight, with an instrumental trying to break through the vocal line. When it finally does, it's a wonderful moment. There's more variety with the Georgia Islands' "Sea Lion Woman" an Ola Belle Reed song, "Going to Write Me a Letter," and a wonderful Kazor original, "Waiting City Shining," that sounds like a rediscovered Holiness Church song. Instrumentals reign in the dazzling "Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase," in which what sounds like a dozen instruments weave around each other. The two fiddles sound like an entire orchestra. It's an extraordinary technical achievement that has to be heard to be believed. The CD comes to a quiet close with another moving Kazor ballad, "Dressed in Brown."

Seven Sisters, the other CD by the Crooked Jades, is a soundtrack from a documentary about seven Kentucky sisters whose ages span a generation. As such, it's more traditional, but still repays close listening. These are old-time songs performed impeccably, starting off with "Put My Little Shoes Away," "Miner's Child" and "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again." These are followed by a moody, almost eerie Hawaiian Slide solo by Lisa Berman called "Pearl Bryan/Intro," but before too long we're back to tradition with "Cumberland Gap" and a haunting "Little Bessie."

There are some instrumental variations on some of the songs, but the rest of the album is rich with tradition: "Wayfaring Stranger," "Pretty Polly," "Young Edward," and more. The closest the band comes to the modern is "Mystery Train," popularized by Elvis, to which they give a strong bluegrass feel.

Though Seven Sisters is a delight, start with The Unfortunate Rake to see if you like The Crooked Jades' unpredictable treatment of old time music as much as I do. This is an exciting young band that I hope will continue to grow, expanding their repertoire and creating more innovative and imaginative music in the years to come, using the past not as something to be preserved in amber, but rather as a springboard to the future.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 15 February 2002

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