Mac & Jenny Traynham,
The Sweetest Way Home
(Southern Mountain Melodies, 1993; 2007)

Mac & Jenny Traynham,
When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland
(Heritage, 1985; Southern Mountain Melodies, 2007)

These two pleasant, unpretentious recordings -- cut in the past two decades but only now appearing on CD -- recall what traditional country music (though the genre was nameless back then) sounded like in the 1930s and '40s. Some of the songs are older than that, several stretching back into the 19th century. The singing and instrumentation owe to Southern folk traditions, but the repertoire is based mostly in sentimental parlor songs, which is to say the polite, middle-class urban music of another era.

Whereas folk songs and ballads tended toward rougher, earthier subject matter, parlor tunes celebrated family, true love, broken hearts, Mother, God and home. If the lyrics expressed a Victorian sensibility that may sound odd, even bizarre, to modern ears, they were carried on wonderfully memorable melodies. Even after mainstream America had moved on to more current, more energetic (and, one might add, more sexually charged) pop styles, the conservative culture of the rural South kept the older songs and sensibility alive. Anybody who has heard much of the Carter Family or the Blue Sky Boys knows how these non-folk songs sounded when recreated by folk singers.

Mac & Jenny Traynham, native Virginians, live in rural Floyd County in the southwestern corner of the state. They are not unlettered musicians of the sort who performed for the folklorists who began showing up in the region in the early 20th century to collect and preserve traditional material. The Traynhams are educated people with a keen appreciation for the old songs and an encyclopedic knowledge both of the material and of the musicians who kept it alive, whether they performed it on their front porch or on the Grand Ole Opry stage. In this space on 4 June 2005, I reviewed Mac's fine solo album I'm Going That Way (Copper Creek, 2004), on which he highlights the homegrown, pre-20th-century music of the Southern mountains.

In Roses and Sweetest Way, however, the couple revives an assortment of commercially written heart songs, with the occasional side trip into gospel or blues-inflected Delmore Brothers compositions, and sings them the only way you can sing them: with unforced sincerity. Even the schmaltziest modern love songs don't express themselves in language this nakedly emotional, and moreover in a kind of ornate language not to be found even in greeting-card prose these days.

Even if you've never heard this sort of thing before, the language, both verbal and musical, will likely strike you as being at once startlingly flowery and startlingly blunt. If "Are You Tired of Me, Darling?" doesn't overwhelm you with its raw emotional truth, or if "In My Dear Old Southern Home" fails to make you homesick even if no such place exists in your own personal history, this music probably is not for you. Still, it's pretty hard to resist, as I learned on being exposed to it for the first time some 40 years ago.

Ably performed, as they are here, these songs of antique yet eternal human sentiment draw you inside them. They're so open, honest and welcoming that it would take a cold, cold heart indeed to keep them out.

The Traynhams do them plain and true, accompanied only by their guitars. Along the way, though they don't press the point, they bring back something of a lost America, and for a while you almost wish you lived there.

review by
Jerome Clark

5 January 2008

Click on a cover image to make a selection.

what's new