ssb14_watson14.html Rambles.NET: Sweetwater String Band, River of Rhymes; Willie Watson, Folk Singer Vol. 1
Sweetwater String Band,
River of Rhymes
(independent, 2014)

Willie Watson,
Folk Singer Vol. 1
(Acony, 2014)

While I haven't followed Old Crow Medicine Show more than casually, that's not out of intentional avoidance. It's just, I guess, that with all the other rooted music out there these days, OCMS has gotten lost amid the competition. On those occasions when an OCMS performance passes through my ears, I always tell myself that I ought to be paying more attention, and always just before a shiny new CD by somebody else shows up in my mail.

Mostly, OCMS intersects with my life when I hear younger musicians and fans attest to its influence. Though I can't prove it, I suspect that the Sweetwater String Band, consisting of four talented young pickers from Northern California, wouldn't exist without OCMS, which evolved from an old-time revival group into a modern string band highlighting tradition-flavored originals. The SSB focuses on self-composed material inspired by its members' obvious affection for the spirit, both pastoral and rebellious, of old folk music.

The band claims that what it does is bluegrass, perhaps for reasons of convenience or commerce, but the music doesn't sound a whole lot like bluegrass (with the occasional arguable exception), at least if you think -- as maybe you should -- that bluegrass is defined by Scruggs-style banjo, syncopated rhythms and Appalachian vocals. Then again, more and more I wonder if, though resisted by us mouldy figs, a new generation of acoustic bands is expanding the definition. To my practiced ear, however, this isn't bluegrass any more than OSMS is. The cello, prominent here, is a splendid instrument, but it isn't a bluegrass instrument.

Regardless, River of Rhymes is pretty damn good. The songs, written (not together) by members Scott Roberts and David Huebner, are appealingly shaped and consistently melodic, with a kind of open-air sound that conjures up rolling mountain landscapes and starlight on the rails. Roberts' gorgeously evocative "Doc's Waltz" -- his North Carolina home place and environs as experienced and imagined by the blind Doc Watson -- seems like a song it would be impossible to write; yet it has the impact of a mighty hymn, transporting listeners to a place they would never have expected to go.

Other songs address social, political and environmental matters, The arrangements are captivating, the harmony singing close to hypnotic. This is the sort of album that grows on you and continues to yield surprises long after first exposure. It concludes with a very fine hobo anthem, Roberts' "A Million Miles," that'll have you traveling a psychic freight train for days.

If OCMS can be counted among SSB's proximate inspirations, it's more than that to Willie Watson, a founding OCMS member. Since then, Watson (no relation to Doc) has gone off on his own. This is his first solo album, whose title lets us know he does not intend it to be his last. On Folk Singer Vol. 1 he also makes clear his first love is traditional music. The most recent of the 10 songs, the late Bruce Phillips' frequently covered "Rock Salt & Nails," was written in the early 1960s and first recorded by Flatt & Scruggs. And then, from 1951, there's the Memphis Slim standard "Mother Earth." Mostly, though, it's old ballads and rural blues from the American Folksong Book, played expertly on solo guitar and banjo and sung in an authentic-sounding downhome tenor.

I expect to tire of hearing "Midnight Special," "James Alley Blues," "Mexican Cowboy" and "Lost John Dean" around the time I tire of living. Hearing them done as Watson does them -- with assurance and nuance -- I am reminded once again why traditional songs survived on their own power before popular songs required a music industry to promote them. My only complaint concerns "Kitty Puss" -- not the song or performance but Watson's odd conviction (expressed in liner commentary) that it concerns a cat accidentally burned alive. Who would want to listen to something like that? In reality, it's a comic piece about sexual temptation. Like so many erotic songs in the tradition, it gleans much of its humor from its faux innocence.

I suppose that Watson's young fans, who did not grow up with them, will fail to detect the sly allusion to old Folkways LPs in the bare-bones packaging and just-the-facts title. David Rawlings & Gillian Welch, who produced the album for their own label, are steeped in the folk-revival culture that preceded their much-heralded debut on the roots scene. So, obviously, is Watson. It's gratifying to see that the world has found its way back to records by folk singers who boldly identify themselves as such, and then turn out to be precisely that: true singers of actual folk songs. There's nothing not to like about Folk Singer Vol. 1 and everything to stir anticipation for Vol 2.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 March 2015

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