The Foghorn Stringband,
Devil in the Seat
(independent, 2015)

You can dislike the Foghorn Stringband only if you have an aversion to oldtime stringband music, in which case you are to be pitied. If you haven't heard it before, keep in mind that oldtime music is neither bluegrass nor country, whatever some poorly informed soul may have told you. String bands, an authentic American folk form, existed before there was a popular-music industry in the modern sense. Over the past two decades it's experienced an unlikely revival, with bands such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Old Crow Medicine Show attracting the sort of attention many rock outfits would envy.

Devil in the Seat, this particular group's eighth album, is more music in the vein for which it's noted, setting forth with heart, humor, energy and chops, not to mention a profound, though not stylistically sterile, regard for the tradition. If "oldtime music" generally refers to a genre associated with the Southeast, three of Foghorn's four members hail from the Northwest -- specifically, Portland, Oregon -- and the other from the Yukon (which I have learned in recent years has its own lively music scene).

Most of the songs here are familiar ones from the oldtime repertoire. One exception, "90 Miles an Hour," a 1963 hit for country star Hank Snow and not something one would associate with traditional Appalachian music, makes the transition, though just barely. Consider it the novelty cut. The other anomalous number, the English folksong "What Will We Do?" fares better, though as far as I know there's no Southern mountain equivalent.

"Columbus Stockade," "John Hardy" and "Pretty Polly" are hand-in-glove fits, and Foghorn brings them to pulsating life, notwithstanding their grim subject matter: imprisonment and abandonment in the first, crime and capital punishment in the second, and heartless murder, apparently unpunished, in the third. Woody Guthrie stole the "Polly" melody for his immortal "Pastures of Plenty."

The fiddle tunes -- two members (Sammy Lind, Caleb Klauder) are proficient fiddlers -- are all standout cuts. There's even a Child ballad, "Henry Lee" (as "Young Hunting" #68 in the good professor's collection). It's sung in a wondrously plaintive voice by bass player Nadine Landry. Murder ballads don't come any stranger or more disturbing than this one.

Foghorn is as accomplished as any traditional band on the current roots scene. Any new release is an occasion for celebration. Devil in the Seat is emphatically no exception.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 June 2015

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