various artists,
Close Kin
(Mountain Roads, 2011)

Brilliantly imagined and movingly executed, Close Kin is a disc to which I have returned on many occasions since my initial listening. It has yet to wear out its welcome. Let us say it isn't the sort of thing you hear every day. Or every week or every month or every year.

It's not the only recording to demonstrate the organic link between Southern stringband music, an authentic folk tradition, and bluegrass, a product of the mid-century country-music industry (and specifically the creative vision of Bill Monroe). That first recording would be Mountain Music Bluegrass Style, the brainchild of the late Mike Seeger, who produced it for Folkways in 1959, drawing on the services of Earl Taylor & the Stoney Mountain Boys, Tex Logan and other rooted, largely Southern pickers. (An expanded version was issued in CD on Smithsonian Folkways in 1991.) Still, very few recordings have sought actually to fuse old-time and bluegrass styles. Close Kin does it with dazzling success.

Conceived by Mountain Roads owner Karl Cooler and veteran bluegrass musician/songwriter Johnny Williams, the CD brings together a group of Appalachia's finest folk and bluegrass musicians (29 of them), most more or less professional performers. None is a "star" -- a term in any event to be used advisedly in the context of these regionally based (or inspired) genres far outside the pop mainstream -- but all are respected, and deservedly so, by their colleagues. If they share a deep love of traditional music, they are not trying to recreate its archaic sounds note for note. They take a contemporary approach which mirrors their own life and musical experiences.

What results is something like the best of everything: the best of the old and the new, the best of the historically preserved and the personally innovative, the best of a tradition worth revering and renewing. The artists on Close Kin (subtitled "A Reunion of Bluegrass & Old-Time Music") do more than revive a music; they carry it to vigorously refreshed and roaring life. And they do it with a selection of songs and tunes -- 16 in all -- in which the familiarity quotient is pretty low. I've heard the bulk of the material at one time or another only because I have been immersed in Appalachian music for decades and probably know it better than is good for one. And even the rare chestnut (the banjo/fiddle standard "Soldier's Joy" most prominently) sounds just fine or better.

Most of the cuts are, of course, traditional or trad in all but name. The modern songs, such as Martha Scanlan's "Little Bird of Heaven" and Kasey Chambers/Shane Nicholson's "Rattlin' Bones," are judiciously chosen, and they fit comfortably. The album opens with a blistering clawhammer/bluegrass banjo duet arrangement of "Chilly Winds" -- a variant of "Lonesome Road Blues" -- boasting a fierce vocal by Johnny Williams. On first exposure it nearly blew me out of my chair. It did send me into the state of exhilaration I enter when a musical piece shakes me to the core. It sounded no less wild or wonderful the last time I heard it, which was a few minutes ago. In another highlight among many, Jeanette Williams (Johnny's spouse) resurrects Sarah Ogan Gunning's "Come All You Coal Miners" without watering down its militant sentiments: Open your eyes and see / What the dirty capitalist system is doing to you and me. It should be added that Jeanette Williams is a vocalist of stunning, if smartly understated, power.

I could go on to rave about some of my other favorites ("Walk Along John to Kansas," "Bound for to Leave," "Seven Cent Cotton, Forty Cent Meat" and more), but I'll simply encourage you to find out for yourself. I will tell you, however, that Close Kin is a masterpiece.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 November 2011

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new