The Salt Miners,
Dressed for Excess
(Woodshed, 2005)

The Shiftless Rounders,
(self-issued, 2006)

Neither the Shiftless Rounders (from the state of Washington) nor the Salt Miners (from Detroit) are bluegrass bands, but inevitably, reporters and critics who know no better pigeon-hole them thus, on the drearily predictable theory that if there's a banjo and the music is rooted in the South, why, it must be bluegrass!

Well, it isn't. The banjo playing owes little to Earl Scruggs, whose three-fingered, jazz-inflected, rolling, syncopated style defines the genre to this day. All of white Southern acoustic rural music is not, let us be clear, bluegrass, which didn't come into being until the mid-1940s and wasn't even called "bluegrass" for another decade.

What we have here is a deeper music that was there before Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys put the mountain stringband sound into overdrive. The traditions from which the Rounders and Miners draw are from broader Southern folk styles as filtered through the 1960s folk revival, which itself appears undergoing something of a revival.

Bob Dylan's ghost flits here and there through the Rounders' approach. They're a duo consisting of Ben J. Sidelinger (vocals, Resophonic guitar) and the improbably named Phillips Saylor Wisor (vocals, guitar, banjo). The opening cut from this live-concert disc, Wisor's "Fists in My Pockets," could easily pass as an obscure 40-year-old Dylan composition, except possibly for the passing swipe at rightwingers' vilification of liberals, not then the deafening howl it has become in our own unhappy time. In my book a Dylan comparison is a high compliment, and the ragged singing and arrangement go a long way toward putting an already good song over.

The dozen cuts fall evenly between originals and traditionals, and there is a cover of folk-eccentric Michael Hurley's lovely "Oh My Stars." The Rounders' intense, noirish readings cause even the old cowboy waltz "Old Paint" to feel a little scary, and the already Gothic "House Carpenter" more than that. This is a solidly executed, fully satisfying recording by a couple of guys with a distinctive take on the tradition. I like this CD very much, and I look forward to hearing more.

If the Rounders sound almost as old as the old sounds, the Salt Miners have other ambitions. They consist of five rock musicians who not all that long ago discovered the pleasures of roots music and elected to throw themselves into it head-first. The results, if hardly precise and perfect, are great fun in a loose, jug-band kind of way. Flailing away, they barrel through some traditional standards (among them "Columbus Stockade," "Freight Train" and -- yes -- "San Francisco Bay Blues") along with good-natured, amiably off-kilter originals generally reminiscent of what you might hear from the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. Never making the mistake of taking themselves too seriously, the Miners come for the party, and for the sheer joy of calling up something new out of something old.

by Jerome Clark
23 December 2006

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