Bruce Molsky,
If It Ain't Here When I Get Back
(Tree Frog, 2013)

The Spyder Stompers,
(independent, 2013)

Both Bruce Molsky and the Spyder Stompers have been around for a while. Multi-instrumentalist Molsky, based in upstate New York, is better known through a career of international tours and projects with the likes of Darol Anger, Aly Bain and other traditional masters. The Spyder Stompers, on the other hand, are a part-time trio noted largely for their long residence at the Barking Spider Tavern in Cleveland.

The two albums have American folk and vernacular music -- in the old-fashioned sense; this is not singer-songwriter country -- in common (though Molsky opens with a little-known 19th-century Australian ballad, "Wreck of the Dandenong"). On If It Ain't Here When I Get Back Molsky's musical geography is (mostly) the Southern mountains -- the title is a quote from the venerable "Cumberland Gap," the concluding cut -- while Cannonball's is (mostly) the Memphis/Piedmont blues and rags of the early 20th century.

Naturally, with so much recorded performance available these days, you could go back to the sources, namely field recordings or commercially released sides from decades ago. Though you could, you're unlikely to feel you need to. When they play and sing, Molsky and the Spyders don't come across as tourists. They sound comfortably at home, producing music that feels lived in, which is how old music is made not just new but believable even if far away from where the place it was born.

Molsky is best known as a fiddler, but he does wonders on guitar and banjo, too. His vocals please the ear and serve the song in the way of great conversational folk singers from Burl Ives to Doc Watson. If It Ain't Here is half instrumental (fiddle and banjo tunes, plus a splendid take on Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence's "Bimini Gal") and half song (familiar standards "Shady Grove" and "Cumberland Gap" and lesser-known ballads such as the above-mentioned "Wreck" and rancher/singer Glenn Ohrlin's wry account of life in the saddle, "The Cowboy"). Any Molsky recording is bound to offer up pleasure and satisfaction, and the current one has no shortage of either.

Doc & Merle Watson sometimes recorded easy-going blues numbers from the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Barbecue Bob Hicks alongside vintage pop songs. If they'd done most of an album's worth of such, something like Cannonball would have been the result, I suspect.

Jack DiAlesandro, a mathematics professor in his day job, is an exceptional finger-style guitarist, and Kevin Richards (guitar, mandolin) and Ray DeForest (acoustic bass) play ably alongside him. They take turns at the vocals, delivering the songs in serviceable, low-key fashion. If singing isn't their strongest suit, they still do the job. There is a generous supply of material -- 23 cuts in all, with not a mediocre choice in earsight -- starting with the traditional hobo ballad "Cannonball Blues" and concluding with Big Bill Broonzy's "Shuffle Rag."

These guys know what they're doing, and they obviously enjoy playing together. Hearing them do it will put you in good company.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 June 2013

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