Ragged Union,
Time Captain
(Shining Castle Music, 2017)

Sweetwater String Band,
At Night
(independent, 2017)

Acts like Ragged Union (a five-piece outfit headed by Coloradans Geoff and Christina Union) wear their traditional influences proudly, making sounds as if they come from somewhere worth digging to recover. At its finest moments Ragged Union splits the difference between old-time and bluegrass. It also throws listeners for an occasional loop with contemporary-sounding jazz and singer-songwriter-flavored material.

The more mountain-shaped songs commence right off with the opening "Leaving Louisville," a band original by Geoff Union and Jim Harris who fashion words and melody in the style of the bluegrass of the 1960s. One thinks of the Dillards, always noted for their superior, trad-but-innovative songwriting. "If You Don't Love Me," another original, could almost pass as a Dillards tune nodding to Reno & Smiley. On the other hand, Geoff Union's "Moonshine Boogie," witty and irresistible, is another kind of classic bluegrass, and among the most impressive new old-sounding songs I've heard in a while.

The sole cover, "Diamond Joe" (one of two old songs by that name), is credited to trad. In fact, though the melody borrows from the venerable 19th-century minstrel piece "Arkansas Traveler," the lyrics, a wry tolling of a cowboy's misfortunes, were written a century later by either Lee Hays or Cisco Houston (the story varies).

More than half of the material affirms trad norms in refreshingly distinctive iterations. The rest of the songs ... well, if not entirely to my taste, that doesn't mean that they won't or shouldn't be to yours. On one hand, depending on how you hear them, the divergent strains may make for a certain dissonance. On the other, they may attest to the band's versatility. Probably, you will respond according to your prior experience of bluegrass. Mine being long and deep, I have, shall we say, fully formed opinions about what I like and what I don't. That's neither a virtue nor a fault; it just is. From where I stand, the hard-core 'grass part of the album is so solidly conceived and executed that the other part, though not necessarily thrilling my ears, doesn't offend them either.

While not a bluegrass outfit, Sweetwater String Band is something like a first cousin, sufficiently so that it is a welcome presence on the 'grass circuit. The proximate inspiration is, I'd say, the folk revival of the mid-1960s as it was evolving out of an emphasis on traditional songs toward original compositions based on older models. Sweetwater's harmonies and rhythms reflect a more contemporary sensibility, however, roughly akin to what modern 'grass is to the classic stuff. The band features four members, none a banjo player. Where there would be a fiddle if this were 'grass, there is Dave Huebner's cello. The other members are Patrick Ferguson (bass), Jeff Meadway (guitar) and Scott Roberts (mandolin).

Based in scenic Mammoth Lakes, California, the band writes songs set in mostly 21st-century Western landscapes. It's not cowboy-culture territory, though; here, the frontier past -- to the degree that it's mentioned -- is the era of mountain men and settlers. On the whole, however, it's country passed through as the singer is engaged in mental accounting of an ongoing or a failed romantic relationship. It's all evocative and movingly melodic. Intensely visual, too; you're envisioning it as much as you're listening to it.

No song on At Night takes the breathtakingly imaginative perspective of "Doc's Waltz" on Sweetwater's previous, River of Rhymes. When I reviewed it here on 7 March 2015, I remarked that the song evokes the "North Carolina home place and environs as experienced and imagined by the blind Doc Watson" with "the impact of a mighty hymn, transporting listeners to a place they would never have expected to go." Songs like that come along only rarely. What's here, though, is plenty satisfying. Besides, it's nice to hear the late Townes Van Zandt's "My Proud Mountains" again after all these years.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 December 2017

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