Pharis & Jason Romero,
A Passing Glimpse
(Lula, 2011)

Pharis & Jason Romero & Friends,
Back Up & Push
(Lula, 2010)

Pharis and Jason Romero live in the foothills of the mountains. Though their music raises a different expectation, those mountains are not to be found in Appalachia. They reside in the remote village of Horsefly in British Columbia's Cariboo Mountains. Jason runs a shop that sells his own banjos. There and on the club-and-festival circuit, he and his wife Pharis perform old-time Southern music -- not to be confused with bluegrass, a later development -- in a deeply traditional style.

My introduction to them came through the late Haints Old Time Stringband whose CD Shout Monah I reviewed in this space on 3 April 2010. It remains one of my favorite old-time albums of recent years. The Romeros were two-thirds of that band. The third member, Erynn Marshall, has since departed for the music's home country, the legendary hot spot of Galax, Va., while the Romeros remain planted in their own domestic soil, which happens to be nearly as far as you can get from Appalachia and not be treading water in the Pacific Ocean.

A Passing Glimpse bears a sepia-toned, shadow-drenched cover photograph inspired, one presumes, by the respective works of Walker Evans and John Cohen. If you've never heard the Romeros before, that cover will give you something of the feeling of their sound, which is from another time and place. If you like this sort of thing -- and I've been enamored of it since one night decades ago I heard J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers booming out of an Iowa-based radio station -- you'll be powerfully drawn to the Romeros's interpretations of familiar and unfamiliar songs.

Some are old folk and music-hall pieces (in the latter category, an affecting reading of Tom Maguire's heart-tugging "Wait Till the Clouds Roll By," the most popular tune in the English-speaking world in 1881). Some other cuts are from the repertoires of Uncle Dave Macon ("Hillbilly Blues"), Karl Davis & Harty Taylor (the evergreen "I'm Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail"), Lead Belly (the comic cowboy ballad "Out on the Western Plains") and the late gospel singer-songwriter Dottie Rambo ("It's Me Again, Lord"), plus some thoughtfully conceived, in-the-tradition originals. The Romeros' harmonies please, as do their seemingly simple yet unfailingly smart arrangements. A number of current bands are experimenting with the canon, devising presentations that stretch the definition of "old time" sometimes to the snapping point. Not here, where it's the good old stuff done the good old way. I have no complaints.

Though the Romeros are appealing vocalists, Back Up & Push (named after the well-known fiddle tune, not included here) highlights their command of the Southern dance/instrumental tradition. Driving down from Vancouver Island through Washington, Oregon and northern California, they brought their banjos and guitars to sessions with West Coast fiddlers. Swing fiddlers once had a home in California (most famously Spade Cooley and, for a time, Bob Wills), but this is pure Southeastern style played with precision and joy. The Romeros are reunited with ex-Haint Marshall on the venerable "Wagoner." Most of the fiddlers' names are new to me, which testifies to the size -- in this context the word is, of course, relative -- and vitality of the old-time scene on the lefthand side of the map, far from my Upper Midwest abode.

Happily, there are few warhorses in evidence, while there is an abundance of surprises. Sound unheard, who could object to something bearing the title "Walk Chalk Chicken with a Necktie On"? Not I. It's a dandy album all around.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 January 2013

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