The Mysterious Redbirds,
(Copper Creek, 2000)

"What we call old-time is this country's first fusion music." The liner notes to the Mysterious Redbirds' album begin with this statement. It's a good introduction to this exciting album, which clearly demonstrates the blending of Celtic styles with African, seasoned with dashes of ragtime and popular music among many others. 1992-1998 brings together thirteen songs from a variety of sources, and perform them in traditional Appalachian styles. The album's title was chosen since the songs were recorded in three sessions during that period.

The album's about evenly divided between songs and instrumentals. Tom Paley (one of the New Lost City Ramblers, a group that brought authenticity to the popularization of traditional folk music) plays the banjo, James Reams the guitar, and Bill Christophersen the fiddle, and all three sing.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the album is the ensemble playing on it. I've grown accustomed to the blues/jazz style, in which each instrumentalist takes a turn in the spotlight while the others play a sparse backup setting. Here, though, they all play spectacularly at the same time while still effectively accompanying each other. It's wonderful to hear! Reams' guitar is at something of a disadvantage in this since both the fiddle and the banjo are intrinsically showier instruments, but his playing is every bit as wonderful and I especially enjoyed "Broken Down Gambler" and "Dry and Dusty" in which his intricate picking balanced the dazzling fiddling. Reams' guitar also accompanies much of the singing, and that's a good place to hear its scope.

My favorite of the instrumental pieces is "Prairie Dog" with its equally amazing banjo and fiddle -- each splendid in itself, and interweaving perfectly with each other. "Oh My Little Darling/Did You Ever See the Devil?" is another standout, and would be of interest to Celtic music lovers, since "Devil" is based on the Irish "Miss McLeod's Reel," described as "stripped down, sanded, and Southernized." "You Married My Daughter and Yet You Didn't" is a French-Canadian tune transformed into Appalachian; I wish the liner had told us a bit more about the story behind the title! I've heard "Turkey Buzzard" under its other title, "Old Coon Dog," but never done so well.

The sung pieces are delights as well. In most either the guitar or the banjo lays down an intricate harmony to the singing, with the fiddle entering in a somewhat subdued way so as accent the singing. The songs cover quite a range, from a fascinating bluegrass version of the gospel tune "I'll Fly Away" to a song about an outlaw, "Otto Wood the Bandit." "Renfro Valley Home" is a Riley Puckett song in which the singer longs for home, and "Sweet Sunny South" has a similar theme in a traditional song. "I'm Gettin' Ready to Go" is a musical response if someone says "Go to hell." Both "Sangaree" and "Roll on the Ground" talk about hard times, themes similar to blues, and it's interesting to compare them -- it points up the fusion that the liner notes mention.

The liner notes are good, telling us a lot about the careers of Paley, Reams and Christophersen and the history of Appalachian music in this century. I wish the notes on the songs had been more extensive, but one can't have everything, and they're informative although brief.

This is an outstanding album, highly recommended to anyone interested in indigenous American music, the Celtic influences on it, or just plain wonderful guitar, banjo and fiddle playing. I only wish it were longer; the individual tracks are each fairly short, and I would have welcomed longer versions of each of the songs, and more of them!

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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