The Roe Family Singers,
The Earth & All That is In It
(independent, 2008)

Old-timey and mountain music have enjoyed a wonderful resurgence in recent years, partly inspired by major motion pictures such as the Cohen Brothers' unique take on the Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? This simple, unsophisticated and chant-like style of music traces its roots to the Irish and Scottish settlers that populated the Appalachian mountains and a variety of locales further west.

The Roe Family Singers offer up one of the purest and most direct samples of this idiom that I have ever experienced. Guitar, banjo, dobro, autoharp and a haunting singing saw occupy the instrumental landscape of this album, effectively backing the vocals without ever stepping on them.

Kim Roe's singing can truly transport the listener to an earlier point in our history -- a time when poverty, simplicity and hard work defined the character of a nation. Quillan Roe, her husband, has a clear and pure voice that continuously stands behind the music, serving the story.

Here, the idiom is primary. This is no star vehicle, no shining example of virtuosity. No, this is an example of the music and the style being out front, while the performers -- admirable, talented and capable all -- are standing humbly behind the idiom, holding it forth for public view. To dive into this album, is to take a cold and at times, harsh, view into a time of scraping a living from an unyielding earth, of helping neighbors raise their barn and suffering through the deaths of loved ones.

This is not an album for everyone, but for everyone that loves old-timey and mountain music, this album will be a treasured part of their collection. This sepia-drenched music should have no difficulty finding its audience, as this album is a well-structured and well-performed example of this genre. It is filled with the simplicity of arrangement and purity of voice that one would expect from a true, old-timey band specializing in the legends, ballads and haunting refrains, so typical of this style. The arrangements are simple and spare; their openness allowing the passion of the singers to shine, and the mood of the song comes through clearly. The vocals are crisp and clear, and true to the genre, lacking in subtlety though rich with the sense of the hard-scrabble life these people endured. The harmonies are tight and clean, and the pure voices of the husband-and-wife duo at the center of this remarkable ensemble are the magnetic core that drives this retro-beyond-retro musical project.

If I have any complaint about the arrangements, it is the over-use of the musical saw. This is a powerful instrument that lends a chilling quality to any tune on which it is used, however, if overused can become a distraction rather than an enhancement.

Some standout tracks on the CD include:

"Shallow Grave," a chilling murder ballad about a woman who kills her husband with a knife, buries him in a shallow grave and the rain -- the Lord's tears -- washes him up. Grim stuff, but such is the idiom. Some truly effective musical saw work on this song.

"My Heart Took to the Earth," featuring a spunky melody sung by Kim Roe, nice harmonies by the group and some very nice claw-hammer banjo work.

"Mockingbird," a short and simple instrumental piece featuring some really lovely guitar work by Quillan Roe.

"Lizabeth Brown," a rollicking murder ballad, once more featuring a wife killing her husband. The arrangement here though is rich and danceable.

review by
David Connor

9 January 2010

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