Grant Dermody,
Sun Might Shine on Me
(independent, 2015)

Woody Pines,
Woody Pines
(Muddy Roots, 2015)

Though we are all used to the expression "folk and blues," the implied distinction misleads. Downhome blues -- the early rural form first noted in the late 19th century -- is folk music, created by the same process of oral transmission that carried ballads, lyric songs, spirituals and other grassroots melodies and lyrics. It is downhome blues' intersection with popular music and the rise of the recording industry that fuels the illusion that it belongs in some unique category. There is also the sentimental fiction that blues represents the "soul" of black Americans who in fact, like anybody else, have always been attracted to a variety of genres. Which is not to say, obviously, that blues is not a noble and notable American sound fully meriting the reverence it habitually receives.

Grant Dermody's and Woody Pines' obvious affection for blues does not lead them to detach it from other forms of American vernacular song. Though blues is prominent in Seattle veteran Dermody's compelling Sun Might Shine on Me, it takes its place alongside "Reuben's Train" and "Sail Away, Ladies" from Appalachian tradition and "J'ai Passe" from the Cajun, not to mention his sometimes jazz-tinged originals, as styles he comfortably turns to his own purposes. His instrument is the harmonica, which he exercises along a range of expressiveness, sometimes full-bodied, sometimes wispy, always set precisely in the moment's emotional core. If Dermody is not a conventionally accomplished singer, he is nonetheless a forceful communicator, convincingly taking on the persona of a guy who is confiding essential truths.

I admire performers able to enliven material so familiar as to seem worn and even tedious when handled without inspiration and imagination. Dermody charges into an unsparing reading of the above-mentioned "Reuben's Train," an oddly cryptic folk song of murky, Reconstruction genesis known in countless variants. There is also a harmonica- and fiddle-driven interpretation of "Baby, Please Don't Go," Big Joe Williams' reworking of the prison lament "Another Man Done Gone." It's been recorded by blues greats, including Williams himself and Muddy Waters, but Dermody's arrangement is so distinctive and unexpected that it powerfully holds its own.

A small but top-flight band supports him: Dirk Powell (various stringed instruments), Cedric Watson (fiddle), Rich Del Grosso (mandolin), Orville Johnson (various strings) and Jockey Etienne (drums). Those who know the roots scene and recognize most of those names will anticipate the finest and be its recipient. If you like this recording, you might also want to look up his Lay Down My Burden, which I reviewed in this space on 17 July 2010.

If younger than Dermody, Woody Pines -- not his birth name, obviously -- yet shares a fascination with older blues and performance styles shaped in the more adventurous precincts of the 1960s folk revival. Like Jim Kweskin, the late Dave Ray, Michael Hurley and others, Pines is a modern-day (in this case modestly electrified) explorer of a strain of 1920s/'30s African-American music that fused rural and urban, folk and popular. Pines identifies his music as "country blues, rag time, viper jazz," which is not a bad description, though I'd add that you can detect elements of Muddy Waters-era Chicago, too.

He hails from East Nashville, on the opposite side of the Cumberland River from the main part of the city, where what passes for country music in the new century is churned out for undiscriminating consumers. East Nashville music, whose practitioners like to call what they do "Americana," is more creative and interesting than its Music City counterpart -- how could it not be? -- but when I hear it, I sometimes am left to reflect that it would be more satisfying if the singer-songwriters who comprise the movement's core were rooted in something deeper than other singer-songwriters. Pines, a happy exception, is among the smaller number who are actually rooted roots musicians.

At the same time, six of the 11 cuts bear Pines's byline, sometimes alongside Felix Hatfield's. Fortunately, they're capably crafted numbers infused with the sort of droll wit in evidence both in old blues artists and in the American Songbook masters. One of the latter, Irving Berlin, composer of the jaunty "Walking Stick," is charmingly visited. On the blues side, Ernest Lawlers's "Blackrat Swing," from Memphis Minnie, gets a jumping, jugband-flavored treatment. "Make It to the Woods" is the Mississippi Sheiks' "Bootlegger's Blues" retitled to suit a singer whose monicker betrays his arboreal fixation. Maybe next time he'll get to "In the Pines."

Jokes aside, Woody Pines -- the artist and the eponymous recording -- is worth seeking out. One's spirits are lifted in the company of young performers able to fashion fine new music out of grand old sounds.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 June 2015

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