various artists,
Pa's Fiddle
(Peak Moore, 2012)

Pa's Fiddle originally saw light as a PBS fund-raising special, one of the shows they package to run during their membership campaigns. Occasionally, though, these specials rise way above their origins and offer an audience more than light entertainment to keep an audience occupied between pledge breaks. Pa's Fiddle is one of these truly special specials.

Inspired by the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is a collection of American music from that time period. In other words, it features a group of the best American songs of the 19th century, sung and played by some of the best bluegrass and country music talent of the 21st century.

Let's take a look at the backing band first. Assembled and led by Randy Scruggs, we have Matt Combs on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on bass, Hoot Hester playing the mandolin, Shad Cobb on banjo and Chad Cromwell on drums. None of these men is exactly a slouch on his instrument. All are band and studio veterans; throw a piece of music at them and they can and will bring it to life, as they do here. In addition to backing all the singers, they play a couple of instrumentals that blow the roof off the place.

As for the singers, for the most part, they are beautifully chosen and given songs that fit them like a new custom made suit. Ashton Shepherd brings "O, California" to life and the Roys show that "The Gum Tree Canoe" could be a hit today. They also make "Buffalo Gals" sound contemporary. The a cappella gospel group, Committed, lets the band accompany them on "Roll the Old Chariot Along" but does "The Battle Cry of Freedom" more in their a cappella style, although the band does play softly in the background. Randy Travis, who has had some problems lately, looks and sounds healthy in this show. In fact, the only performer whose work I didn't respond to was Ronnie Milsap, who struck me as having lost his magic somewhere along the years.

Overall, this is a fine package. It treats the old traditional stuff as classic but doesn't take a stuffy, academic approach top the music; it lets it speak to today's audiences and it does, wonderfully.

by Michael Scott Cain
24 November 2012

Though I live no more than an hour from Walnut Grove, Minnesota, I have yet to read any of Laura Ingalls Wilders' Little House books. What I know of them I have learned by osmosis (and not from the cockeyed television series, which I actively boycotted). One thing I know is that Wilder often mentions the music -- folk tunes, hymns, parlor ballads -- known to the Ingalls family in the latter 19th century. Charles "Pa" Ingalls was also an accomplished fiddler.

Pa's Fiddle is a concert recording in which the performers are not, as one might have anticipated, experienced folk-revival artists. They're mostly current (Ashton Shepherd, Rodney Atkins) and past (Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap) Nashville stars. The results are pretty much what one would expect: pleasant, unchallenging versions of songs that bear no discernible resemblance to how they would have been heard on the Midwestern frontier of a century and a half ago. Not, of course, that folk revivalists usually sound purely traditional, either, but they do make an effort to envision arrangements based in what amount to extrapolations from earlier styles.

For the historically minded among listeners, the good news is that folksong scholar Dale Cockrell contributes to the proceedings, which means that his knowledge ensures some unique and unpredictable material. There is, for example, the "Oh Susannah" parody "O California," from the mid-century Gold Rush. It may or may not matter to you that Ashton Shepherd's vocal is nontraditional and r&b-inflected. Her reading of the parlor song "Oft in the Stilly Night" is actually quite moving in its way, surely among the disc's most engaging moments, but again -- if only to those versed in that genre -- sometimes distractingly anachronistic.

Just about all of the 16 cuts, in fact, are arranged in contemporary Nashville format, with a house band of guitar, fiddle, bass, drums and occasional mandolin and banjo. There's no effort to cloak this in even so much as bluegrass garb. Bluegrass is a music that most people think is far older than it is, but at least it can trace its origins, if not its distinctive, jazz-influenced sound, to the string bands of the 1800s. Pa's Fiddle, in other words, is not a Northern answer to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

What you make of the album will depend upon what you bring to it. From my personal taste, I would have enjoyed more variety, less modernity, and performers better versed in period music. (It is hard to avoid the suspicion that few if any had heard of most of the songs before they were assigned to sing them.) Still, nothing here is actively dislikable, except possibly the goofing on "Buffalo Gals" indulged by the bluegrass-pop duo The Roys. An African-American gospel vocal group, Committed, shines on the spiritual "Roll the Chariot Along" and on George F. Root's Union anthem "Battle Cry of Freedom."

Mostly, though, this is manifestly unintended for the hard-core student of American vernacular song. It's the sort of album you might give your otherwise clueless parents to supply them with some broad, if dim, grasp of what you hear in that old, weird American music.

by Jerome Clark
24 November 2012