Brett Larson,
One of These Roads
(House of Mercy, 2014)

The Roe Family Singers,
Heaven Send Us Better Times
(House of Mercy, 2013)

Kim and Quillan Roe, the couple who lead the oldtime band Roe Family Singers (which at full strength claims seven other members), live in Kirkwood Hollow. Given their hard-core Appalachian sound, that's no surprise. What is unexpected is that this particular Kirkwood Hollow is located not in, say, Kentucky but at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. It's yet more evidence that you don't have to be around mountains to create convincing mountain music.

There is, moreover, nothing revisionist in their approach, which is as richly traditional as any traditionalist could wish. Heaven Send Us Better Times recalls in many ways the first Appalachian album to find its way to my ears: an LP preserving the sound of a 1950s North Carolina folk festival whose performers were all authentic musicians native to the region. That sound thrilled me then, and it does today. Yet, without knowing much of anything about them, I doubt that the Roes grew up with this music. As a native Minnesotan I can attest that polka bands were just about the only local folk music available in my formative years. In the 21st century they're nearing extinction. I might add that in the Midwest such outfits are characterized as "old time."

As the title suggests, Heaven highlights gospel songs and hymns. Only Gillian Welch's "Red Clay Halo" is of recent composition. The warhorse "I Saw the Light" and the lesser known "Ready to Go Home" come from Hank Williams' mid-century repertoire. "Keep on the Sunny Side" (composed in 1899) and "No Depression" (1933) are associated with the Carter Family, who first recorded two decades before Williams did.

Other well-traveled titles include "Down by the Riverside," "Workin' on a Building," "Angel Band" and "I'll Fly Away." In fact, part of the album's charm is the very familiarity of its content; it also helps that the RFS do these songs so capably, inserting occasional novel touches (e.g., the musical saw in "Warfare"), that they remind us just how deep and powerful this material is. It's familiar because it is so widely meaningful to so many. Still, my favorite cut is the least known to me, "We'll Camp a Little While in the Wilderness," hailing back to the Brush Arbors revival crusades of another time and built around an especially compelling metaphor.

Brett Larson's One of These Roads is anything but flashy. Singing 11 of his own songs in an unvarnished, conversational voice, he gives off something of the vibe of a slightly countrified Tom Paxton. A resident of a thinly populated rural county in east-central Minnesota, Larson chronicles life in small places, the frigid landscape, and -- of course -- romance's changing fortunes. The narratives are straightforward, the tone mostly plaintive but at moments exuberant, the testimony of an ordinary guy who's naturally honest and entirely without pretense.

As you listen to him, you may reflect, as I did, that the world could use more music like this. A song could hardly bear a title so devoid of artifice as "My Broken Heart," sufficient to make one reflexively suspicious. But it turns out to be a fine number, and God knows we've all been there. "One of These Roads," an unembellished modern folk song of the kind that I never tire of hearing, weds moving narrative to memorable melody.

Because it is not at all ambitious or trail-blazing, One of These Roads isn't in the running for the greatest album the world has ever known. It doesn't have to be. In its own modest, understated way it is close to perfect.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 April 2015

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