Adam Tanner,
Sure As You're Born
(independent, 2007)

I met Adam Tanner in May 2006 while interviewing members of the Crooked Jades -- an innovative San Francisco-based trad-folk band, two of whose recordings I have reviewed in this space -- for a profile that later appeared in Sing Out! Tanner, who played fiddle, mandolin and steel-bodied guitar (spectacularly well, I might add), left the band late the same year. Since then, though raised in northern California, he has been making music in his chosen home, the small town of Weaverville, North Carolina, from which he has released a CD with ex-Freight Hopper and oldtime-banjo player Frank Lee. He also is a part-time member of the hillbilly-harmony group Hunger Mountain Boys (also reviewed here), whose inspiration is the brother duet-singing of country music's early history.

When we spoke in Minneapolis, where the Jades were gigging at the Cedar Cultural Center, the leading Twin Cities folk venue, Tanner (along with Jades leader Jeff Kazor) struck me as a man possessed of huge confidence with talent to match. I have met few performers with Tanner's (or Kazor's) encyclopedic knowledge of traditional American music, about which Tanner had things to say that I -- far from an innocent wayfarer in this area -- had never heard expressed. And when I remarked that Robert Johnson had a variant of "Casey Jones," never recorded, in his repertoire, Tanner already knew that. I was impressed.

Because he talked mostly about rural Southern African-American music, Sure As You're Born comes as no particular surprise to me. All but two of the cuts (a couple of trad-sounding original instrumentals) are reworkings of commercially recorded country blues of the sort now widely available on reissues from labels like Yazoo, Document and JSP. Blues 78s of that kind were issued in the thousands in the latter 1920s and '30s. Since then, lots of white roots revivalists, starting perhaps with Woody Guthrie (whose "New York Town" is Blind Lemon Jefferson's "One Dime Blues" with some new lyrics), have put their own stamp, deeply or shallowly imprinted, on the material. In a self-profile Tanner lists as his influences just about every country-blues artist you've ever heard of. He opts to burrow more deeply into the tradition, as opposed -- as others have -- to reimagine it.

The result is a solid and entertaining record with a full, muscular sound notwithstanding a slender population of but three musicians. Tanner handles the vocals, backing them with fiddle, mandolin and various guitars, with Scott Craver on harmonica and John Mulholland on percussion and washboard. The smartly picked material consists mostly of songs that have not been revived to death. Even the tried-and-true pieces (e.g., "Nobody's Business If I Do," "He Calls That Religion") get treatments that feel refreshingly dust-free. Elsewhere, the fiercely percussive "Sic 'em Dogs On" (from the fiercely percussive Bukka White) will occasion both chills and heart palpitations.

Tanner doesn't sing in the frog-throated, guttural style of many country-blues performers, but if he isn't a deep bluesman in that sense, he manages to carry the songs plausibly enough. It's the playing and arrangements, though, that make Sure As You're Born a few leagues beyond the ordinary. I can attest the recording continues to give pleasure and satisfaction after repeated listening, and what higher praise is there than that?

review by
Jerome Clark

1 March 2008

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