The Ragpicker String Band,
The Ragpicker String Band
(Yellow Dog, 2015)

The nicely named Ragpicker String Band brings together three of the most accomplished acoustic roots musicians currently working for a satisfying excursion through oldtime and oldtime-sounding blues, rags and vintage pop. Rich DelGrosso plays mandolin, mandola and dobro, Martin Grosswendt guitar, slide, fiddle and mandolin, Mary Flower guitar and slide. Each also contributes vocals, both lead and harmony. Anybody who's heard them before -- they're all better known for their solo projects -- will have high expectations, and not be at all surprised when they're met here.

Two of the songs ("Honey Babe" and "Lonely One in This Town") are associated with the Mississippi Sheiks. The grandest of the African American string bands, the Sheiks seem never to have cut a lousy song in their recording career (1930-35), and I've heard them all. "Black Mattie" and the genially raunchy "Clean Up at Home" come from Tennessee songster Sleepy John Estes, one of the most impressive, also most underrated, songwriters in all of black rural music. A song titled "Milk Cow Blues" is usually thought to be a Kokomo Arnold composition, but the "Milk Cow Blues" on this disc is not the familiar one covered by Bob Wills, Elvis Presley and many others. This one, bearing Estes's byline, is something else entirely. Some of you will have heard a version of it on Ry Cooder's classic Boomer's Story (Reprise, 1972). Cooder called it "Ax Sweet Mama" after Estes's colloquial pronunciation of "Ask."

DelGrosso is an outstanding mandolinist, influenced by the likes of Yank Rachel, Papa Charlie McCoy and Johnny Young, masters of the all-but-lost tradition of blues mandolin. Besides her finger-picking and slide skills, Flower is a charmingly low-key and extraordinarily assured singer, comparable to nobody I can think of. No one will ever call her a blues shouter; she's more inclined to wry humor and emotional understatement. Her handling of Lil Johnson's "Minor Blues" ought to melt the iciest of hearts. Veteran stringman Grosswendt adds a tough, terse sound with Delta overtones.

The Ragpickers show what happens when a trio's worth of separate experience, talent and knowledge meets in service to mutually loved, expertly rendered music. It's a pleasure all the way through, and one hopes for a sequel down the road.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 September 2015

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