ELECTRONIC EDITION: Now free to email subscribers and supported by tasteful, music-oriented advertising with a unique news-format approach.

A monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond.

Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright





2: Folk and Blues




part 2: Folk and Blues

By Doug Bright

     In 1958 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences established an annual award to honor the record industry's highest creative achievements in a wide range of musical styles.  ⠠⠐⠮ were 28 award categories then, but as the years passed and the music industry became increasingly specialized, so did the awards.  Today, 63 years later, there are 83 categories, and this year's awards shed interesting light on the strength and scope of American traditional music in the recording industry.  The following developments will be of particular interest to readers of Heritage Music Review.


                                 Of all the record companies that have jumped on the cd reissue bandwagon over the last thirty years, Archeophone Records ( has staked its claim in an almost-entirely neglected territory: the American popular music that preceded the Jazz Age of the 1920's, and its nominee in the Best Historical Album category may well be its most exciting release yet. Entitled

Celebrated, 1895-1896,

  it documents the best recordings from the career of the Unique Quartette, the first African-American barbershop act ever to appear on wax.

      It all started when Joe Morris and a few singing companions migrated from the South to seek their fortune in New York's emerging community of black entertainers. The group had undergone a few personnel changes since it cut its first Edison cylinder in 1890, but according to Archeophone's dedicated preservationists, the six tracks compiled here represent the cream of the available crop, both sonically and artistically. They appear, not on cd or digital download formats, but on a ten-inch vinyl album of the kind that hasn't been made since the late Fifties. "Perhaps counter-intuitively," writes Joe Bebco in _The Syncopated _Times, "the choice to release these songs on vinyl adds a warmth that overcomes any acoustic deficiency in the source material. This is a special set, meant to be respected and treasured, and the packaging asserts that in a way a six track cd never could."

   Since these cylinders were made by small start-up companies while larger labels like Edison and Columbia were in transition, their sound quality presented a challenge even to the experts at Archeophone. The brief samples on the company's website are all-but unlistenable, but the vinyl album brings the background noise to a bare minimum and enhances these ultra-rare recordings to a level that brings the vocal power and harmonic precision of the Quartette into clear focus.

   In sharp contrast to the later songwriting style of Tin Pan Alley, the songs, with such titles as "Mama's Black Baby Boy", "The Old Oaken Bucket", and the delightfully rousing  "Jubilee: Down On The Old Camp Ground", reflect the artists' rural Southern roots. In fact, a couple of these songs will be familiar to devotees of the white Appalachian stringbands of the 1920's. "I'se Gwine Back To Dixie" was a popular song in the 1890's, and singer/banjoist

Uncle Dave Macon,

 an early star of the Grand Ole Opry born in 1870, would certainly have heard it during his youth in Tennessee. He recorded it for the Vocalion label with his Fruit-jar Drinkers in 1927.

   "Who Broke The Lock (on the henhouse door)" was recorded about the same time by

Riley Puckett,

 leendary guitarist for Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers, as "Riley's Henhouse Door". Nevertheless, the chorus is the only thing that the two versions have in common. While Puckett's verses were characterized by good old-fashioned barnyard humor, the Uniques' original chronicles a social gathering that got out of hand, with all the black attendees collectively and routinely identified, even in their own culture, as "coons".

   "The Old Oaken Bucket (that hangs in the well)", a sentimental reminiscence of childhood farm life, was popular with white quartets of the era, who tended to sing it in steady waltztime, but as with their interpretation of "Back To Dixie" and other such ballads, the Uniques held every line out as long as possible to wring out every drop of melody and harmony, and the result is astonishingly expressive. "The Unique Quartette exhibited more barbershop chords to the vocal square foot than any four singers that have been here in a long time," a concert reviewer wrote in 1896.

   As Joe Bebco points out in _The Syncopated _Times, the album's biggest surprise comes at the end of a "Hot Corn Medley" that includes a sample of "The Old Oaken Bucket". "After a series of song fragments," he writes, "the group breaks into an impressive yodel ensemble. Yes, a black barbershop quartet yodeling 125 years ago."

   One of the best of this year's folk candidates was Sarah Jarosz's _World On The _Ground, which won the award for Best Americana Album. Born in Austin, Texas on May 23rd, 1991 and raised in the little town of Wimberley, multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz started playing mandolin at age 10 and went on to learn guitar and the old-time clawhammer banjo style. During her senior year in high school she caught the ear of Sugar Hill Records, resulting in a 2009 album called _Song Up In Her _Head.  

   It was an impressive debut. Strongly influenced by such progressive bluegrassers and purveyors of "new acoustic music" as David Grisman, it featured thoughtful, well-written original songs delivered in a clear, compelling country-folk voice with instrumental arrangements deeply rooted in Appalachian tradition but tastefully infused with some jazzgrass flavoring. The instrumental "Mansinneedof" got a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

   Jarosz's sophomore effort, 2011's _Follow Me _Down, continued the production strategy but incorporated drums and brought in a Who's Who of guest star instrumentalists and singers from bluegrass, country, and progressive acoustic genres. 2013's _Build Me Up From _Bones was nominated for Best Folk Album, and its title track was nominated for Best American Roots Song. _Undercurrent, released in 2016, won Jarosz her first Grammy in the category of Best Folk Album, and one of its tracks, "House of Mercy", took the award for Best American Roots Song.

   _World On The _Ground, released last year, consists mostly of reflections on her odyssey from small-town Texas child prodigy to renowned torch-bearer of roots-based folk. The songs eloquently explore the conflict between the safety of home and the dreams and ambitions that pull us out into the great unknown. "Hometown" took this year's award for Best American Roots Song. "Pay It No Mind" contrasts the hopefulness of a bird's-eye view  with the harsh realities of the mundane world, admonishing, "When the world on the ground is gonna swallow you down, sometimes you've got to pay it no mind."

   Jarosz's character in "Johnny" wonders, "How could a boy from a little bay town grow up to be a man, fly the whole world round, then end back up on the same damn ground he started?" He's now back home "just waitin' on the stars that will never align" but "signs are all around you, let it begin." Jarosz and new producer John Leventhal give the song a pure, unpretentious folk-rock sound supported by a solidly drummed backbeat but dominated by acoustic instruments that accent her compelling vocal harmonies. At the hardcore traditional end of the spectrum is North Carolina Fiddler/banjoist Fred Cockerham's "Little Satchel", characterized by Jarosz's high, lonesome vocal delivery and solidly authentic clawhammer banjo, with only simple rhythm guitar accompaniment until the tasteful synthesized orchestration comes in for the finish.

   The closest thing to roots-based rhythm-and-blues among the nominees for Best Americana Album was singer/songwriter/guitarist Marcus King's album _El _Dorado. King, born March 11th, 1996 in Greenville, South Carolina, inherited his love of music from two generations of the paternal side of his family: his father, Marvin King, was a well-respected figure on the local blues and black gospel scene. In the three previous albums with his Marcus King Band, King had demonstrated plenty of skill as both guitarist and Southern soul vocalist, but the approach bore too much modern blues-rock influence to be of much interest to this proudly opinionated old critic. But with this year's Grammy-nominated release, _El _Dorado, he engaged top-shelf Nashville studio players with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys as producer for a more melodic orientation.

   The opening track, "Young Man's Dream", provides an intriguing foretaste of King's and Auerbach's ingenuity in this new collaboration. King's supple tenor voice may remind the listener, however unintentionally, of Rod Stewart in ballad mode. It's initially given an acoustic setting, with a nylon-string lead guitar track subtly influenced by Willie Nelson's simple, focused  melodicism, and it's enhanced by Paul Franklin's deliberately understated pedal steel. When the full band kicks in for a muscular electric sound, the result is a fusion of country, Southern soul, and contemporary rock that actually works!

   The country influence is even more striking on "Too Much Whiskey", which contains subtle references to the old Texas Outlaw himself as well as a blues-harp track reminiscent of Nelson's longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. As for the song's subject, King echoes a recurrent Willie Nelson theme when he confides, "I'm still lookin' for that young man's dream, it seems."

   "Wildflowers and Wine" is a celebrative classic soul ballad in which an "old scratchy record plays in the background of our lives." "We're still here dancin' after all this time," King observes happily. Like several other numbers on this album, it's sweetened with appropriately basic Hammond B3 organ chords and background harmony from a female chorus. In "Love Song", also graced by the female chorus, King harmonizes very effectively with himself in a manner that calls Sam and Dave to mind. All in all, this album represents stylistic fusion of the best kind.

   It was multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter billy Strings who took the award for Best Bluegrass Album with _Home, his 2019 debut on the prestigious Rounder label. Born William Apostol on October 3rd, 1992 in Lansing, Michigan, he was hugely influenced by his stepfather, Terry Barber, a recreational picker in the Michigan bluegrass scene. "Then, when I grew up," he adds on his website,, "I learned that I liked Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, so that influenced me, too."

   His mastery of guitar, banjo, and mandolin inspired his aunt to dub him Billy Strings, and the name stuck. After settling in Nashville in 2015, he released a  five-song set simply entitled _Billy _Strings.  It was an attention-grabbing introduction, showcasing his expressively twangy baritone voice as well as mandolin, Scruggs-style and clawhammer banjo, and clean flatpick guitar in the best Doc Watson tradition. His penchant for addressing current issues was masterfully demonstrated in a song about hard drugs and their consequences. "I got twenty long years for some dust in a baggie," his character lamented.

    Strings' 2017 release, _Turmoil and _Tinfoil, was his first full-length album and encompassed the entire range of his approach to bluegrass music. On one hand, his composition "All of Tomorrow" was a wistful love song that could just as easily have been recorded in the early 1950's by Mac Wiseman, complete with three-part fiddle harmony. His "Memories of You" was sung with the kind of classic two-part harmony that evokes Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers, accompanied only by guitar and mandolin.

   On the other hand, songs like "Meet Me At The Creek" and "Turmoil and Tinfoil" featured long, one-chord instrumental jam solos that take us back to the Woodstock era. "Dealing Despair" and "Doing Things Right" reflected one of Billy Strings' most prevalent songwriting themes. "We've got to stand together to put an end to hate today," he admonished.

    With _Home, the winner of this year's Best Bluegrass Album award, Strings continues the theme with "Falling Down" and "Taking Water", a modern Jeremiad about the American ship of state. "This old boat is taking water,  Won't be long 'til it goes down," he warns. "Time to turn the wheel around."

   As with his previous efforts, this album seasons deeply rooted bluegrass picking and singing with extended instrumental solos and experimental stereo soundscapes reminiscent of the psychedelic era. It shouldn't work, but it does—astonishingly well, in fact. Then there's "Love Like Me", a ballad so charmingly authentic that it could have come straight out of Appalachian folklore. "Freedom" is written and performed in old-time mountain gospel quartet mode, backed only by guitar and medolin. All in all, this album shows Billy Strings as a rare artist who can build on tradition without obscuring it.