Bryan Sutton,
Not Too Far from the Tree
(Sugar Hill, 2006)

various artists,
Friends of Fahey Tribute
(Slackertone, 2006)

As a general principle, albums of instrumental music are best appreciated by fellow musicians. Those of us who are not musicians or who have no formal musical training -- in other words, who are merely consumers and fans of the music that pleases us -- are relegated to simple (you could also say simplistic) summary judgment. Either we like it, or we don't. So my simple and simplistic summary judgment is that I like both of these CDs, both of them based in traditional folk music but radically different in approach and mood.

Friends of Fahey Tribute celebrates the late John Fahey (d. 2001), creator of what he called "American primitive guitar." A project initiated by a Vietnamese-American who goes by the single name Tinh, it brings together guitarists who count Fahey as an influence or at least a particularly admired colleague. (Well, it's not quite all guitarists; George Winston opens the disc with a piano reading of Fahey's "Steamboat Gwine 'Round de Bend" and concludes it with a harmonica version of same.) Inspired by hymns and early blues, Fahey's compositions have a stately, deliberate aura encompassing a sense of American time, affording one the impression that Fahey was hearing something just out of listening range of his fellow citizens. The music is -- no other word will do -- beautiful. Though evoking a lost past, it is, however, never sentimental, cloying or nostalgic.

There is one vocal, "When Your Way Gets Dark," Paula Geremia's reading of a song recorded in 1929 by Fahey's idol Charlie Patton, arguably the greatest Mississippi bluesman of them all. I happen to have been there when it was recorded -- in the basement studio of Dakota Dave Hull's Minneapolis home -- but that is not the reason I think this is Geremia's most stunningly realized recording ever.

Bluegrass guitarist and Nashville-session regular Bryan Sutton has given us an enjoyable collection of flat-picking duets in Not Too Far from the Tree. It's a friendly, outgoing record with lots of familiar fiddle tunes turned into guitar pieces, the sorts of titles any Doc Watson fan will recognize instantly: "Ragtime Annie," "Billy in the Lowground," "Dusty Miller," "Whiskey Before Breakfast" and the like. Sutton has sought out guitarist friends and contemporaries also schooled in this old school: Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Earl Scruggs (yes, on guitar), Dan Crary, Ricky Skaggs, Doc himself and other first-rank rooted pickers.

If Fahey's music is clouded moonlight on a slow-moving river, Sutton's is bright sunshine on a summer lakeshore. Between these two discs, in other words, you've got one entire, very pleasant day.

by Jerome Clark
9 December 2006

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