Laura Orshaw,
Songs of Lost Yesterdays
(independent, 2014)

Kitty Amaral,
Fiddle Gems
(String Dreams, 2014)

The longer I live and the more I hear, the more often I am struck -- more to the point, awestruck -- at the depth of traditional American music. When it's done right by artists who are passionately attached to it and who possess the talent to express what's in their own heads and hearts, the music feels new, or at least as if yielding secrets till now unshared. I experience that happy sensation from these two masterly recordings, one from a young woman, the other from a 12-year-old girl, both fiddlers, who together affirm the sounds of lost yesterdays found again.

Laura Orshaw grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, learning oldtime music from her grandmother Betty Orshaw and picking bluegrass with her father Mark Orshaw. Now based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she has released her first album, Songs of Lost Yesterdays. If you had to give it a single-genre classification, I suppose you'd call it bluegrass. But this isn't just another good bluegrass record -- the world boasts a generous supply of those -- because more is going on here in knowledge, performance and repertoire than one expects to encounter.

In this sense Orshaw is something like a young Hazel Dickens. In fact, she sings a Dickens song, the characteristically fierce "Coal Miner's Grave," concerning a real-life worker murdered a century ago in West Virginia's infamously bloody labor wars. While songs about the travails of coal mining are ubiquitous among bluegrassers, this one is far too politically pointed for timid (or ideologically conservative) mainstream bluegrassers, who seem to have made a point of excluding even the verse in Billy Edd Wheeler's often-covered "Coal Tattoo" that mentions the United Mine Workers, apparently on the grounds that it's too controversial.

Orshaw does something I've not heard before: a bluegrass arrangement of "Going to the West," a folk song whose origins are traceable to 1830s Alabama, when restlessness and opportunity drove many to cut old ties and migrate to the newly liberated -- or, from another perspective, snatched and grabbed -- territory of Texas. For me this perfectly expressed, casually poetic piece falls into a particular category of songs: those that so moved me I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on their initial passage through my ears. Befitting the bluegrass arrangement, Orshaw's version is more uptempo than any other. Not that there are a whole lot of them, come to think of it; for a song so uniquely attractive, it's shockingly under-recorded. (Two other interpretations you might want to seek out: the late Mike Seeger's and Connie Dover's. Dover, who fills out the text with her own additional verses, transforms it into an anthemic statement about the opening of the West.)

Strictly in terms of song quality, not a second-rate cut is to be found among the 11. Orshaw and her accompanists manage to turn in unfailingly solid readings. In addition to inspired selections from the bluegrass/country songbook (e.g., the late Charlie Moore's "The Cotton Farmer," the wonderful "Row Number 2, Seat Number 3" learned from the singing of Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper), Norman Blake's "Uncle" is resurrected alongside Peter Rowan's atmospheric, Monroe-esque "Wild Geese Cry Again" and the traditional "Sailor on the Deep Blue Sea." Orshaw offers up a couple of solid originals ("Guitar Man," "New Deal Train"). Drop in anywhere in these (metaphorical) grooves, and prepare to be pleased that your life brought you to this.

When she cut Fiddle Gems, Kitty Amaral, who lives in rural Virginia, was 12 years old. Because there have always been precocious musicians, that's not entirely novel. However good they may be, though, it's hard not to be at all moments conscious of their age as one hears children playing instruments. After all, we presume, music isn't just notes and licks but the entire experience the musician brings to the performance. Still, almost miraculously, young Kitty Amaral relegates her years to background detail. Fiddle Gems is an impressively accomplished and -- even more remarkably -- apparently mature collection of mostly traditional, mostly not well-known tunes. I've found myself returning to it repeatedly, and I'd be surprised if other listeners don't do the same.

Her liner note inform us that she started on the violin when she was 4. At 8 she met oldtime musician Jerry Correll, who taught her many of the fiddle tunes showcased on her debut album, which he also produced. It helps, of course, that she has a number of leading oldtime masters, including Correll, Carl Jones and Adam Hurt, supporting her. Even so, she stands front and center with her rich, warm fiddling, exploring tunes that cover an emotional range from the chipper "Yellow Heifer" to the meditative medley "Midnight on the Water/Napoleon's Retreat." On the last of the 19 cuts she tackles Byron Berline's "Funky Chicken," a reworking of the venerable "Chicken Reel." It'll leave you smiling. The album overall will have you wondering what's next for this unusually able fiddler, already more than just a "young" practitioner.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 July 2015

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