Tom Wilson & Border Bluegrass,
When the Wagon was New
(Rodeo International, 1997)

An interesting blend of music pervaded my childhood home. My parents followed the latest musical trends but also listened to classics, jazz and country music. I think part of the reason traditional country music still leaves a warm feeling at the centre of my being is that I heard so much of it as a child. I grew up on the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Mac Wiseman, Flat and Scruggs, Doc Watson and other traditional acts. Hearing this music now brings back some of my childhood.

So it might be said that I approach traditional music with somewhat of a bias. I like it.

In their latest release, When the Wagon was New, Tom Wilson and Border Bluegrass take us back to that earlier time. Although the performance on this recording is somewhat laid-back, the music has a comfortable feel to it. While it is interesting to turn the sound up and give it a good listen, this music also serves as a comfortable background for any activity. It blends well with a good meal, a good book or a good conversation.

As I listened, however, I had the feeling that something was missing from the overall presentation. To my ear, there were holes in the music that wanted filling. It finally occurred to me that there is no fiddle, and that a fiddle would fill out this band's sound admirably. But would that make it, in fact, a different band?

On many of the songs, the energy level feels quite low. It's as though the band is only working and not having fun playing the music. That's a shame, because the music really is quite good. Overall, the peacefulness of this music is quite comfortable and enjoyable, but sometimes it just feels flat emotionally. It's a tossup whether this is a result of the band's collective mood or of the way the music was mixed down.

A real plus on When the Wagon was New is the banjo of Lloyd Grant. The brightness of the well-played banjo brings up the tone of every arrangement in which it is heard. If anything in this release can be said to stand out, it is the ever present sound of Grant's banjo.

What works especially well on this CD is the traditional and near-traditional music. "I'll be Satisfied" and "Golden River" are especially good examples of traditional country music played well. One of the better "traditional" tunes is worth noting in that it is not traditional at all but was written by Tom Wilson. "Gather at the Manger" is a fine piece of hillbilly gospel harking back to an earlier, more innocent time.

Whether by design or simply because it is the nature of this branch of traditional music, this CD has a strong Christian content. About half of the songs included are gospel numbers.

Those wishing a break from modern country music will find When the Wagon was New a welcome addition to their CD rack.

[ by Bob MacKenzie ]
[ Sound Bytes ]

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