Ginny Hawker |
& Tracy Schwarz,
There are two ways to do traditional songs and tunes. You can do them pretty much as they were in their original form, or you can reimagine them. Both approaches have provided us with rich and moving music. In the end, what matters is that, as the old saw has it, there are two kinds of music: the interesting and the not so interesting.
Advocates of the first, classicist approach, Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz sing old Southern songs in the close-to-the-bone, clench-toned style familiar to anybody who knows how it sounds from early hillbilly 78s and field recordings of long-gone Appalachian folk singers. Schwarz is the more (relatively) famous one, as a member of the New Lost City Ramblers (who virtually define "archival") since 1962 and, on his own, a respected non-Cajun exponent of Cajun music. Hawker, who grew up singing mountain music in southern Virginia, is an exemplary vocalist with an approach that manages, in the fashion of so much memorable traditional expression, to be both austere and emotional.
As one would expect of two smart, informed performers, Hawker and Schwarz know the material well enough to eschew the songs that have been sung to the point of exhaustion and expiration. Well, I guess the bloody ballad "Katie Dear," which opens the set, is the exception, but its strange narrative, menacing undertone and preposterously melodramatic climax somehow lift it out of any realm where prosaic critical judgment can touch it, rendering the potential complainer mute and helpless. Really, why not another rendering of "Katie Dear"?
Beyond that, the recording settles into generally more obscure ballads, laments and hymns. The Appalachian Gothic sensibility shades even the rare cheerful song, which is never far from a morbid awareness of lurking doom and looming damnation. People drink themselves unto near-death experience, soldiers whisper their last words before the tomb, lovers part, boyfriends murder girlfriends, orphans suffer and heaven awaits the weary pilgrim.
Backed at times by fiddler/mandolinist Ron Stewart and bassist Peter Schwarz (Tracy's son), Hawker and Schwarz recite the dark news and flick the occasional light with the sort of soulful delivery that can come only out of living inside the songs.
The stuff is raw, and no artifice is to be found anywhere within. Hawker and Schwarz make the stark country of old-time music, for all its violence and tragedy, seem more real, vital and honestly experienced than the decaying, soulless nation we inhabit in our quotidian lives. In his liner notes, producer Dirk Powell puts it best: "They offer us a taste of what we've been and what we need to be again to feel that the America we're proud of isn't lost but merely waiting."