Kaia Kater,
Sorrow Bound
(Kingswood, 2015)

Slocan Ramblers,
Coffee Creek
(independent, 2015)

On paper Sorrow Bound seems an unlikely success, perhaps not quite on the order of a Hungary-born singer-guitarist whose music is practically indistinguishable from that of a deep Delta bluesman (Little G Weevil; I reviewed his Moving in this space on 14 September 2013), but it is certainly unexpected enough in its own way. Kaia Kater, who was 21 when she cut this recording, is of Canadian-Caribbean background. Not the sort of artist you'd expect (a) to choose Appalachian music as her expression of choice and (b) to perform it with such utter conviction.

Kater, however, is impressively gifted and deeply committed, sufficiently so to make regular trips from her home in Toronto to her adopted one in West Virginia. Among her friends are the young masters Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle, who as Anna & Elizabeth have brilliantly carried on, even expanded, the Appalachian tradition (their latest CD reviewed here on 30 May 2015).

The banjo is Kater's instrument, and she plays it in a sort of neo-oldtime style whose modernist touches are so sensitively integrated that one at first fails to notice how distinctively they enhance the music. Her accompanist, multi-instrumentalist Chris Bartos (also her producer), backs her on an assortment of acoustic and electric instruments, plus Moog synthesizer, again all put carefully to the service of the songs. Sorrow Bound ends up an entirely satisfying collaboration of past and present, neither exactly resurrection nor exactly experiment but a fusion that blends seamlessly and moves deeply.

Five of the 11 cuts are traditional, not six; Jimmie Driftwood's "Valley Forge" is misidentified as trad. "When Sorrows Encompass Me Round" is not the antique hymn usually associated with that title, but a blues ballad conjuring up the dark world of an escaping fugitive or slave. I wonder if its thematic touchstone could have been the song now usually called "Run, Boy, Run," formerly with another identification (it starts with "n") in the middle, inspired by the vile, ubiquitous presence of slave-catchers in the antebellum South. Besides being a songwriter in the vein of Jean Ritchie, Ola Belle Reed and Gillian Welch, Kater is a top-flight interpreter of authentic folk songs such as "West Virginia Boys" and "Sun to Sun," not to mention banjo tunes like "Salt River" and "Rose on the Mountain."

Also based in Toronto, the four-member Slocan Ramblers fuse oldtime music and bluegrass in an appealing mix. For all their historical and musical links, performers and fans of the two genres as often as not view each other with suspicion if not outright disdain. In recent years, too, some young bluegrass bands have pushed the boundaries, sometimes to the breaking point, transforming tradition into acoustic pop.

Not, happily, here. A major model is Dave Evans, an Ohio banjoist/vocalist known only to those of us who adore hard-core mountain 'grass. (There's even an Evans song, "Call Me Long Gone," though he is better known as an interpreter than as a writer.) Nobody in the band sings like Evans, who is of the Ralph Stanley school but hardly an imitator; yet the Slocan sound definitely shares roots. The banjo-driven reading of "Pastures of Plenty" owes as much to Evans's recording as to Woody Guthrie's.

Folk songs such as "Groundhog" and "Rambling Sailor" are definitely not standard in the bluegrass repertoire, and all the more welcome for their appearances here. While not unknown in bluegrass, period country songs such as Roy Acuff's "Streamline Cannonball" and Alton Delmore's "Mississippi Shore" have not been done to death either, and they're well worth bringing back to life. The occasional original, such as Alastair Whitehead's affecting "Elk River," stands strong amid the competition. Not just another bluegrass album, this one boasts its own unique and sterling character, and it will have you coming back for regular visits.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 August 2015

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