Mac & Jenny Traynham,
Never Grow Old
(Mountain Fever, 2008)

Mac and Jenny Traynham live in Floyd County, southern Virginia, where old-time music and bluegrass survive and thrive into the 21st century. Once or twice a decade since the 1980s, they release an album's worth of their duet singing, showcasing songs from the same broad traditions that turned another Virginia family -- A. P., Sara and Maybelle Carter -- into immortals of American folk and country music.

Like the Carters', the Traynhams' repertoire consists of material taken largely from the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, expressing sentiments that may feel -- at least in the words used to evoke them -- quaint today; nonetheless, they retain the power to move with their simple, or in fact not so simple, truths. The songs derive from several distinct but not unrelated sources: folk tradition (the ballad fragment "Storms are on the Ocean," the oldest piece here by far), the Carter Family ("My Old Clinch Mountain Home"), hymns ("In the Land Where We'll Never Grow Old"), gospel (Albert E. Brumley's "Turn Your Radio On") and 1940s country (the Delmore Brothers' "Don't Let My Ramblin' Bother Your Mind"). None of this, by the way, is bluegrass. It is, however, the soil from which 'grass grew.

Perhaps the most unusual cut is an antique protest song, "In Those Agonizing Cruel Slavery Times," which in the Traynhams' intensely felt reading communicates the moral darkness of an era in whose long shadow we continue to dwell. "Mama, I'm Sick" is not -- as the title might lead you to believe -- about a dying child (songs on that subject are lamentably ubiquitous in old-time music) but about a homesick young man who longs for Mama's cooking. As you listen, you'll miss it, too.

All of this is straightforwardly arranged, enriched by the couple's ear-catching, unabashedly emotional mountain harmonies. Mostly, it's just Mac on guitar and banjo and Jenny on guitar. Joining them on one cut are Jackson Cunningham (mandolin) and on two others Shay Garriock (fiddle). Never Grow Old speaks not just to the hope of everlasting life in mansions eternal but to the music itself, which feels timeless in the Traynhams's channeling of it. Their recordings are always welcome in my home, and I hope they find their way to yours.

review by
Jerome Clark

12 July 2008

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