various artists,
Close Kin: Our Roots Run Deep
(Mountain Roads, 2014)

This is a sequel to Close Kin: A Reunion of Bluegrass & Old-Time Music, which I reviewed -- rapturously -- in this space on 5 November 2011. Close Kin: Our Roots Run Deep is both more of the same and something different. Under the guidance of Mountain Roads head Karl Cooler and veteran bluegrasser Johnny Williams, the original release assembled 29 current Appalachian performers to document the state of mountain sounds in the 21st century. Suffice it to report it demonstrated they are healthy indeed.

Further proof of that vitality is in happy evidence on the current project. This time around, Cooler and Williams had the bright idea to call on the collective efforts of young singers and pickers, and by young I mean young: banjoists, fiddlers, mandolinists, guitarists and bass players between the ages of 11 and 17. And no, this is definitely not a novelty record. The boys and girls here captured are fully in command of their instruments, voices and art. The results are uniformly entertaining, moving and impressive.

All right, in an ideal world where smaller indie labels have larger budgets, Our Roots would have been the second disc in a two-CD package with A Reunion as the first. Still, even at 15 minutes shorter than its predecessor, the new recording manages to stand on its own. At a dozen cuts, mostly traditional, the rest firmly based in the tradition, there's enough music to satisfy any reasonable hearer. The material is intelligently chosen, beginning with a hard-driving stringband reading of the venerable "Fortune," sung by Levi Funk, 17, as if he were half a century older. Ellen Gozion's quieter, affecting neo-folksong "Old Stone Wall" (Lindsey Nale, 16, vocal) follows.

The ubiquitously traditional "One Morning in May" (also known as "The Soldier & the Lady," "The Nightingale" and "Wild Rippling Water") may or may not strike a discordant note, not for any reason of arrangement or performance, but because it's very much an adult ballad of seduction, betrayal and adultery. The most unexpected song is John Fogerty's "Don't You Wish It Was True," expressing sentiments one would associate more with Pete Seeger's optimistically progressive politics than the deep-red, often angry ones of modern-day Appalachia. Then again, these are young people, God bless their hearts.

Three full-bodied versions of the classic instrumentals "Sandy River Belle," "Hell Broke Loose in Georgia" and "Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase" will get any listener's blood racing and roaring. Banjo player/vocalist Jared Boyd leads a winning iteration of the late John Hartford's exhilarating "M.I.S.I.P.," which sounds as if it were written more than 150 years ago in the grand age of steamboat river travel.

All of the songs and tunes are set in arrangements that fuse the best of mountain music, an authentic folk tradition, and the bluegrass -- fashioned in the commercial Grand Ole Opry culture of the mid-20th century -- that evolved from it. Among their other virtues both Close Kin discs show up the very foolish persons who insist they like bluegrass but not oldtime, or vice versa. If Cooler and Williams should decide they want to produce yet more Close Kin volumes, I am sure few who love this most rootedly American of music will complain.

music review by
Jerome Clark

24 May 2014

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