Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman,
We Made It Home
(Maker/Mender, 2013)

California residents Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman lead a modernist bluegrass band called Front Country, unheard by me. We Made It Home introduces me to their music, highlighting their songwriting and harmonies. The esteemed roots master Laurie Lewis produces; resophonic guitarist Mike Witcher joins on two cuts and percussionist Linda Tillery on one. Aside from that, this is strictly a Walker/Groopman record.

Proceedings open with the title song, set to a melody usually associated with the Bill Monroe instrumental "Ashland Breakdown." Monroe may have borrowed it from tradition, and others -- Steep Canyon Rangers ("Lovin' Pretty Women") and Si Kahn ("Wild Rose of the Mountain"), for examples -- have borrowed it from him. The second cut, the Walker/Groopman co-write "Retinue," attests to John Prine's ubiquitous influence on two generations of country-folk songwriters. I could even swear I've heard the melody on a Prine album. Even so, these are decent songs, nicely performed.

Walker composed most of the songs, with the exception of Paul Simon's "Graceland," the traditional "Sweet Sunny South," and Peter Rowan's "Mississippi Moon," all done in considered, distinctive arrangements. The subjects of her originals sometimes range beyond the expected bluegrass and country themes, Particularly striking in this regard are "Black Grace," a kind of secular hymn, and "Betelgeuse," a meditation on events in the cosmos as glimpsed from one's distant place on Earth.

"Billy the Champ" surely is the most unusual song, a true story of the career of a boxing chimpanzee. It is not a comic piece; the sadness is inescapable. You can hear it as a moral tale of human beings' curious and unhappy relationship with their nearest relatives in nature, or to nature in general. It is amazingly affecting, and one of those songs whose truths require more than one hearing to reveal themselves.

Walker & Groopman play with grace and blend voices expertly. All of this is carried off with manifest understatement and sincerity, not to mention brains and heart.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 February 2014

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