The Independent December 1998
By Art Menius
In a music rich area like ours, the problem becomes not finding ten outstanding releases from local musicians and labels, but holding the line at just ten. I offer, therefore, not a top ten, but simply ten great releases.
A duo, the BR Boys have pleased Greensboro audiences since the 1970s, but only now can we enjoy their debut recording, Good Things (BR 1000). Well worth the wait, Good Things pulls together the BR Boys exquisite, unpretentious treatment of a full range for folk music from blues to old-time and bluegrass to singer-songwriter in a delightful set.
Three masters of traditional southern music – Californian Tom Sauber, Asheville’s Brad Leftwich, and Alice Gerrard from Durham — join forces on the outstanding Been There Still (Copper Creek CCCD-0164). Tom, Brad, and Alice draw from the rich resources of old-time, bluegrass, and gospel to present a stunning record of music for voice, frailed banjo, guitar, and fiddle.
Perhaps better known to mainstream audiences are Mac Wiseman, Doc Watson, and Del McCoury, whose collaboration Mac, Doc & Del (Sugar Hill SHCD-3888) recently appeared on the Durham-based label. The charming, relaxed, mostly bluegrass project finds the whole even greater than the sum of the parts.
Morrocan sintir virtuoso Hassan Hakmoun has released his seventh album on Durham’s Alula Records. Recorded with the help of luminaries including Adam Rudolph and the late Don Cherry, Life Around the World (Alula ALU-1009), showcases not just Hakmoun’s celebrated vocals and playing, but his rich vision of enchanting and diverse world music.
Our own Lightin’ Wells and Scott Ainslie released two of the strongest traditional blues albums of 1998. On Terraplane (Cattail 1196), Ainslie offers a moving and mature body of songs new and old. Although Ainslie is the most Delta influenced of our bluesmen, Terraplane also provides strong examples of Piedmont and Chicago styles, gospel, and several original pieces. Ragtime Millionaire (New Moon Blues NMC 9820), Wells’ second CD, offers 19 tracks presenting Lightnin’ literally solo on material from the 1930s to the 1990s. Wells performs it all with convincing authority and an affinity for having fun.
For contemporary electric blues, check out harmonica stand out Rock Bottom & the Cutaways’ Shake Your Boogie Leg (New Moon NMC 9821), also on Chapel Hill’s New Moon Blues. Stinging, evil guitar riffs from the BB King school, Rock Bottom’s harp and powerhouse singing, strong original material, and a sense of humor combine for a blues record that truly rocks from the bottom up.
Singer-songwriter Kim Buchanan of Hurdle Mills delivers an engaging performance on Will I Ever Know (2911 Productions). Her haunting, atmospheric vocals immediately capture the listeners attention on both the simpler arrangements and fuller folk pop pieces, while her lyrics reveal a writer in touch with nature and her own world.
Rutherfordton’s Michael Reno Harrell is also a contemporary singer-songwriter, but works within a bluegrass-based sound. Accompanied by such giants as Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan on Ways To Travel (Rank 98104), Harrell offers not just excellent listening, but fresh, powerful, and wry lyrics whose southern life in the 1990s approach contrasts pleasingly with most bluegrass compositions.
We should close with an historical project, and few have ever surpassed the North Carolina Banjo Collection (Rounder Records 0439/40), a 2-CD, 42 cut set compiled by Lexington’s Bob Carlin, that includes Charlie Poole, Doc Watson, Libba Cotton, Wade Mainer, and Etta Baker. Drawn from commercial, archival, and field recordings spanning the 1920s to the 1990s, the compilation delivers an astonishing compilation of the rural 5-string banjo styles – frailing, minstrel, and two-finger – that came before Tar Heel Earl Scruggs made North Carolina three-finger bluegrass banjo picking famous.