Courtney Granger,
Beneath Still Waters
(Valcour, 2016)

Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms,
Innocent Road
(independent, 2016)

Awhile ago I noticed that review copies of country CDs were arriving ever less frequently. By "country" I don't mean bluegrass or oldtime or, groan, "Americana," a genre designation still looking for a reason to exist. Country music was once defined as "what gets played on country radio," which was a lot of different stuff, sometimes memorable, sometimes awful, more often instantly disposable (as you can determine for yourself just by watching an episode or two of the syndicated country serials popular in the 1950s and '60s -- The Porter Wagoner Show comes to mind -- in small-town markets). Country in my definition (and not just mine, of course) started to form in the late 1920s/early '30s recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, who merged blues, folk songs and sentimental numbers into a style that transcended Southern traditional sounds and pointed them toward a new form of pop.

Though I admire Rodgers' creativity, I find much of his output cloying and unlistenable. It took the likes of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams to cut the fat and produce lean, stark, emotionally plain-spoken music. Most of what today is thought of as classic country takes its inspiration more from their recordings than from Rodgers'.

As a performer based in Portland, Oregon, Caleb Klauder (guitar, mandolin) has been associated with various country bands as well as the oldtime-Appalachian Foghorn Stringband. Both his talent and his knowledge are formidable, and Innocent Road is as good as any hard-country CD I've heard in 2016. Here he's joined by Reeb Willms (guitar) for some soulful male/female hillbilly duets, both covers and originals (though you'll have to look at the composer credits to figure out which is which).

Except for the opening number, "Coming on Strong," which Brenda Lee charted in 1966, Innocent Road deals in a strain of country that only those immersed in the genre's history will recognize. The heart songs that attract Klauder & Willms are a less ornate iteration of floridly sentimental 19th-century parlor ballads (not incidentally, well represented in the Carter Family repertory) that survived in the mountains long after they had passed from the parlors. If honkytonk, sex-drenched and blues-inflected, was the Texas/Oklahoma stepchild of Western swing, early Southeastern country borrowed sentiments and melodies from a, well, squarer era.

Though that sort of approach hasn't entirely disappeared, you're more likely to encounter it framed in bluegrass arrangements. Indeed, I first heard the wondrously tear-jerking "No One Dear But You" -- by Bud Dunkelman, whose last name is misspelled in the credit -- decades ago on an obscure LP by a fiercely hard-core 'grass outfit. (Am I alone in recalling Benny & Vallie Cain?) Vern & Ray once cut Jack Sutton's "Montana Cowboy," as later Delia Bell and Emmylou Harris did, and no doubt others, as a bluegrass number. Klauder's "Been on the Rocks" really ought to become a genre standard, even if it's produced here with drums and electric guitar.

I've heard the occasional, though hardly common, attempt to recreate this foundational strain of hillbilly, but as is often the case in such musical time-traveling, the past turns out to be more distant than it looks. Yet Klauder & Willms sound as if born to the antique sounds, and they render the qualifying adjective quite beside the point. Their artistry feels as fresh as yesterday, and I don't mean "yesterday" in the metaphorical sense.

Louisiana native and resident Courtney Granger is a young man and an old soul. His regular gig is with a Cajun band, the acclaimed Pine Leaf Boys, and he's related to the hugely influential Balfa Brothers, who almost single-handedly saved Cajun musical traditions from extinction in the 1960s (an interesting story in itself, but not for here). On Beneath Still Waters, however, Granger is focused on the uncompromising honkytonk songs that defined country at its most powerful from the mid-1950s into the 1970s.

In addition to his masterly vocal skills in the Lefty Frizzell/George Jones/Merle Haggard/Gene Watson vein, Granger has the good taste or fortune to have as producer Dirk Powell, accurately characterized in the accompanying promotional material as "one of the best American roots musicians in the nation," as well as a small band of stellar country and folk artists. Only one of the 13 cuts is of recent origin (the closer, Powell's "My New Year Starts Today"). Otherwise, these are well-chosen, not excessively familiar songs from the deep-country catalogue: Vern Gosdin's "Baby, That's Cold," Keith Whitley's "She Never Got Me Over You," Bill Anderson's "When a Man Can't Get a Woman Off His Mind." Alcohol and morose sentiments abound.

I'm particularly delighted to hear "Lovin' on Back Streets," a terrific cheatin' song and an early 1970s hit for the gifted but doomed honkytonk champion Mel Street. Another highlight is an affecting rendition of the somber spiritual "What are They Doing in Heaven Today?" In another, sadly vanished time Courtney Granger could have been a country star.

music review by
Jerome Clark

10 December 2016

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