Reviews for Dirty Linen Magazine 1992-1993
By Art Menius
America’s best folk periodical for more than a decade, Dirty Linen thrived through the 1990s and slowly died in the 21st Century. Some of its writers and big tent spirit continue on at www.driftwoodmagazine.com
I reviewed seven recordings for Dirty Linen during a few months in 1992 and 1993 before deciding to focus on The Independent and Bluegrass Unlimited. Dirty Linen’s editor Paul Hartman hosts a Sunday evening folk show on WTMD-FM 88.7 in Baltimore.
Lonesome Tonight (Red House CD 46 (1991))
Lonesome Tonight, the first compact disk release by the Upper Midwest’s best known bluegrass outfit, finds Stoney Lonesome peaking to the height of their powers. Fueled by the awesome bluesy vocals of Kate MacKenzie and the solid banjo playing of Kevin Barnes, Stoney Lonesome demonstrated the same chops live at the International Bluegrass Music Association conference last September. Mired for much too long in the paradoxical position of an internationally famed regional bluegrass band, Stoney Lonesome now stands poised to make it on their own and in a big way, too.
In case you missed the first part of their story, Stoney Lonesome emerged from among several Minnesota outfits as the Prairie Home Companion bluegrass band as Garrison Keillor’s show spread across the USA during the late 1970s and early ’80s. MacKenzie, indeed, remains a key musical and dramatic player on the Keillor team. The band released its quite presentable debut album through the marketing muscle of Minnesota Public Radio’s Wireless. I would guess it sold well, but aside from earning them an appearance on the Nashville Network’s “:Fire on the Mountain” show, it failed to make much impact on the hard core bluegrass world. For one thing, PHC meant little to bluegrass promoters tuned to commercial country radio. For another, while bluegrass fans and recording companies seemed receptive to females in the leading role even a decade ago, presenters lagged several years behind. How times have changed!
Stoney Lonesome has changed with them. Wisely distancing the band from PHC, Barnes and MacKenzie completely restructured the group in 1986 and 1987. The addition of bassist Patty Shove, Chris Kaiser on mandolin, and fiddler Brian Wicklund combined with several years of hard work have forged Stoney Lonesome into tight, powerful bluegrass unit. MacKenzie now has the platform to support her mighty vocal gifts, and they shine throughout Lonesome Tonight. Perhaps she will finally achieve the long overdue recognition as the vocal equal of more celebrated artists such as Alison Krauss, Lynn Morris, Kathy Kallick, and Laurie Lewis.
Lonesome Tonight presents a band so together and focused that a detailed critique of the CD would prove pointless. Suffice to say that the greatest criticism is not enough of MacKenzie’s excellent songwriting appears. Otherwise the song selection rates as highly as the performance with a thoughtful blend of less familiar traditional classics from the likes of Ola Belle Reed and the Stanley Brothers, newer material such as label mate Greg Brown’s “Early,” and an original each from Kaiser and MacKenzie. It all adds up to a thoroughly delightful collection of contemporary inflected traditional bluegrass that easily ranks among the five best bluegrass releases of 1991.
Fame Apart (Voyager VRCS 337 (1991))
The vagaries of social change and the recording company methods of the 1920s have given the impression that old time string band music proved a totally an Appalachian or southern Anglo-American tradition. Our knowledge of African-American string band music , however, seemingly increases daily with a few practitioners such as Joe & Odell Thompson still performing. Except for the resurgence of New England contra-dance bands and folkloric field recordings of fiddle music from many states, documentation of string band music outside the South consists all too much of distant memories and musical shards. One such glimpse comes from Oregon’s Happy Hayseeds, who recorded “The Tail of Halley’s Comet” and three other curiously prophetic and atavistic tunes for Victor in 1930.
Best I can tell, Amen Corner comes from the northwestern USA. Like the Happy Hayseeds, Amen Corner plays a brand of old-time string band music that exhibits considerable difference from its southern cousins. Consisting of Justin, Kathy, and Ellie Petersen along with Kristen Forster and Steve Davis, Amen Corner’s music, as heard on Fame Apart, suggests listening rather than the relentless dance beat of the Round Peak style. Vocals, especially ensemble singing, receives vastly greater emphasis than in southern string band music.
Those who prefer hard driving string band instrumentals will probably find the Amen Corner vocal approach, which owes debts to both white gospel and parlor music, off putting. Although all five band members sing and quite pleasantly, Amen Corner’s right on the beat vocals come across as rather too stiff.
Instrumentally, however, Amen Corner acquits itself quite well, using their more relaxed tempos to insert a variety of pleasing subtleties, such a quick banjo run, into the music. Like many southern string bands these days, Amen Corner augments the fiddle, banjo, guitar group with an upright bass. Listeners will find familiar many of the selections, such as “Sail Away Ladies” and “Raise A Ruckus,” but the band has developed their own distinctive arrangements. They filled out the cassette with an original by lead singer and banjoist Justin Petersen and Albert Brumley’s “Cabin in the Valley.”
Amen Corner appears to have put a lot of thought into their sound and this project. They have developed their own approach within the context of traditional old-time string band music. Their playing rates highly, but the evaluation of their unquestionably sincere singing remains a matter of personal taste.
The Virginia Company
Vintage Virginia (Virginia Company VACO-002 (1992))
Those who perform music from prior to the twentieth century have no old masters from whom to learn and no recordings of the music. Broadsides and song books remain, but one must infer both style and repertoire.
The Virginia Company has grown right proficient at this effort. Vintage Virginia, their second cassette release, nicely recorded by Bill McElroy at Bias, demonstrates their methodology. Dean Shostak, Barry Trott, and Cliff Williams determine which books, dance manuals, musical productions, and periodicals were available to Virginians of the 17th and 18th centuries. They then bring the songs to life with Baroque guitar, recorder, harpsichord, and hurdy-gurdy. Sometimes they must set antiquated words to a suitable period tune.
The music shares certain qualities with traditional fiddle, Celtic, and early music. Its primary audience remains those intrigued by the first 200 years of British settlement in America.
Bruce Molsky and Bob Carlin
Take Me As I Am (Marimac #9023 (1989))
Double Decker Stringband
Evolution Girl (Marimac #9021 (1988))
The Boiled Buzzards
Salt & Grease (Marimac #9027 (1990))
Marimac Recordings, which relocated to Indiana from New Jersey in 1990, began by producing cassette reissues of wonderful old-time material from the 1920s so obscure that no other label would touch it. From that most needed start, Marimac expanded into the release of tapes by contemporary old-time artists. Again it filled a clear and vital need unserved by other independent outfits.
On Take Me As I Am, Lexington, NC banjo player Bob Carlin and Washington, DC fiddler Bruce Molsky combine a love of and feeling for traditional music with a depth of knowledge developed over two decades of playing and field work. Molsky has earned a reputation over the past decade as one of the most driving, yet inventive younger old-time fiddlers. Carlin has distinguished himself as a traditional music disk jockey, recording artist, and as the compiler of such exceptional documentary projects as the Altamont CD of 1940s black stringband music for Rounder.
Molsky’s powerful fiddling shines with the support of Carlin’s rhythmic banjo and guitar backup on one of the very few recordings to draw from both the Anglo-American traditions of the Mount Airy, NC area and the African-American string band music of Tennessee’s Cumberland plateau. Their unmistakable respect for the roots of this music does not dampen the contemporary excitement of their playing.
The Double Decker String Band, based in the Washington, DC area, has been around since late 1977. It took its name from the original line-up in which five-foot fiddler Susie Robbins could play standing upright underneath the fiddle of 6-9 Bill Schmidt. Both have since departed the group, but Craig Johnson, who joined in ’79, continues in Double Decker with founders Bruce Hutton and John Beam.
Evolution Girl, which follows two previous releases for Fretless, strongly demonstrates the Double Decker Stringband approach, which places them among the most delightful traditional revival groups. Perhaps more than any current old-time aggregation, Double Decker understands the variety of music recorded in North America during the 1920s and 1930s and uses this knowledge to produce vibrant, well-balanced projects. They approach the music respectfully, but understand the humour, both then and now, of such material as the title track from the Carolina Buddies or the Hackberry Ramblers’ “Rendezvous in Honolulu.” As many of the most generous twenty selections come from the southern gospel traditions, both black and white, as are fiddle tunes.
Evolution Girl engages and entertains the listener as well as educating about many wonderful artists of more than a half-century ago. It stands in the best tradition of the New Lost City Ramblers, demonstrating that tradition and self-expression can go hand in hand. Highly recommended.
The Boiled Buzzards have become a most popular stringband for square dances in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Salt & Grease suggests why, featuring driving, irresistibly danceable old-time music. Although Dan and Ruth Levenson, David Rice, and Joe Collins have played together as the Boiled Buzzards only since 1988, they demonstrate cohesion as well as enthusiasm. Rice even adds an original old-time fiddle tune, “Southtown,” to the twenty tracks.
Salt & Grease proves one can dance all night to the music of the Boiled Buzzards. The cassette would make a most acceptable substitute for a live band for a set of squares. Unfortunately, that very quality limits it for living room listening. Fifteen square dance tunes, three three part fiddle tunes, and only a couple of vocal numbers just don’t add up to a listener’s album. The Buzzards have the talent, the beat, and the drive, now they need to explore the emotional depth of stringband music. That said, the Boiled Buzzards have the energy to make the feet move.
Larry Sparks Sings Hank Williams (Rebel REB CD 1694 (1977, Reissued 1991))
Revolutions sometimes occur almost unnoticed with only subtle indications of the fundamental changes taking place. As bluegrass music entered the late 1970s, the youthful influx of brought on by the festivals of the late 1960s and early 1970s had abated. Bluegrass festival promoters began emphasizing “family-style” events as the community welcomed older fans from two sources: recreational vehicle owners looking for safe, entertaining weekend happenings and people who loved the pre-rockabilly country music and turned to bluegrass as a living genre from that period.
Larry Sparks Sings Hank Williams, a 1977 County Records album recently reissued by sister label Rebel on CD, seems in retrospect a clear indication of what was happening. A decade early Sparks had filled the most soulful shoes in bluegrass by becoming Ralph Stanley’s lead vocalist after the December 1966 death of Carter Stanley. In 1969 he formed his own band, the Lonesome Ramblers. He quickly earned, and has maintained to this day, a reputation as one of the most compellingly emotive singers in bluegrass.
Significantly, the idea for Sparks to record an album of Hank Williams songs in an acoustic, but not bluegrass setting, came from a New Yorker, Kathy Kaplan, who had discovered bluegrass during the folk revival and devoted the rest of her life to it at great personal cost. Backed by Dobroist Tommy Boyd, the fiddle of the venerable Chubby Wise, and future country star Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Sparks came close to matching the emotional intensity of Williams’ work while maintaining his own distinctive phrasing and delivery. Wisely he mixed enough of Williams’ enduring hits with more obscure material from Hank, Senior’s large repertoire. The results, which come closest to sounding like a young Roy Acuff singing Williams’ songs, remain today a demonstration of both Sparks’ powerful vocal abilities and the wealth of possibilities for reinterpretation provided by Hank Williams’ recorded legacy.