Marcie Horne,
Everything's Blue
(Mountain Fever, 2008)

Mike Mitchell,
Thirteen Hours
(Mountain Fever, 2007)

Everything's Blue and Thirteen Hours are both first albums. The first is straight-ahead bluegrass, the second a mixture of bluegrass, fiddle tunes, Western swing and folk. Each is an auspicious debut, yet more evidence that -- as long as talented singers and pickers are around to care for it -- the well of tradition-based music will stay close to bottomless.

A disc jockey at a rural small-town Virginia station in her day job, Marcie Horne has been performing bluegrass professionally for a decade now. She's honed a sound that is broadly reminiscent (though not rankly imitative) of early Rhonda Vincent, before country-pop took the grassy edge off many of Vincent's arrangements. Basically, in other words, Horne holds to tried-and-true bluegrass while not attempting merely to channel it from a receding past. This is, in other words, trad bluegrass in a modern context, and it's a joy.

As she opens the proceedings, Horne makes sure that we know where this is all coming from: the Father of Bluegrass himself, the late Bill Monroe. It may or may not be coincidental that the Monroe song she chooses, "Can't You Hear Me Calling," is also the title of Richard D. Smith's 2000 biography of the man. "Hold Whatcha Got," written by another first-generation master, Jimmy Martin, occupies the third cut. Next is a particular stand-out, "Old Broken Tree," an evocative gospel ballad by Larry McPeake of the hard-core traditionalist McPeake Brothers Band. Perhaps to showcase her range, it's followed by Herb and Nikki Pedersen's "Old Train," made famous by bluegrass modernists Seldom Scene in the 1970s. In each case her vocals rivet and arrangements sparkle.

Her own songwriting isn't bad, either. Six of the 14 cuts are her own compositions. Again, her range is striking, from the faith-driven testament "God is Good" to the party-hearty closer "Stoney's Jar." Her "New Loves" seeks to penetrate the dark mysteries of romantic love, conjuring up the questions the late Raymond Carver so famously addressed in his classic short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

Everything's Blue is a wonder of bluegrass just about perfectly felt, realized and performed. I look forward to its sequels. Meantime, if you love bluegrass, you really don't want to miss this one.

Mike Mitchell's Thirteen Hours has an extraordinary back story. Born and raised in Canada, Mitchell was trained as a classical violinist but lost his ability to play when a brain tumor sent him spiraling into a life-threatening crisis. Healed and starting over, he reinvented himself as a fiddler. He now lives in Floyd, Va., playing the sort of Appalachian-flavored music featured on this engaging disc.

With help from Sammy Shelor (of the popular Lonesome River Band) and an assortment of comparably able pickers, Mitchell works his way through traditional tunes ("Blackberry Blossom" and "Money Musk") and mostly well-chosen covers (the "mostly" only because Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin's "Long Black Veil" is surely eligible for mothballs; no complaints, on the other hand, about Merle Travis's witty, swingy "So Round, So Firm," a double-entendre novelty inspired by a long-ago cigarette-commercial slogan), along with some tasty originals.

Everything is good here -- even "Veil," however over-familiar, is rendered bearable -- but the title song, a ballad written in commemoration of the miners who died in Sago, W.Va., in January 2006, is more than that. Among the finest songs I've heard in this very good year for roots music, it tears straight to the listener's heart and soul from its first line, "I was a man...." If that haunted melody sounds a little like something you've heard before, well, it's at least an echo of the one that carries the Grateful Dead's beloved "Ripple." Nothing wrong with that. What matters is that Mitchell's way of telling its profoundly sad yet ultimately affirming tale is utterly unforgettable.

review by
Jerome Clark

9 August 2008

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