Casey Joe Abair & Hunter Robertson, |
If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed
The title quotes the wisdom of old-time banjo player Charlie Lowe of North Carolina. The message: if you don't like lively music, get lost. Though Lowe is long gone, Casey Joe Abair (fiddle) and Hunter Robertson (banjo, lead vocals) carry on the fiery tradition of Southern mountain music. Neither man, however, is a Southern musician. Abair hails from Vermont, where the California-born Robertson was living when this was recorded. Since this past May he has resided in France.
Robertson's music came into my life with his striking Songs for the Masses (a tongue-in-cheek title if ever there was one). I reviewed it in this space on 5 July 2008. Masses was not just another accomplished oldtime-revival album but something that sounded as if delivered intact (but for the rare electric guitar) from some remote provincial outpost in the 19th century. I marveled at what I called its "almost skinless sound." The vocals conjured up "a 200-year-old ghost ... accidentally captured on the tape as, otherwise inaudible, it sang to Robertson's playing of an old tune." This was the sound of American folk music, one surmises (we can't know for sure, of course), as it was before the advent of recording equipment.
If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed is not that sort of album, except perhaps on those occasions when Robertson sings in the sort of choked rasp that made Masses feel so eerily out of its era. Abair & Robertson's atmospheric reading of "In the Pines" (accompanied by Fereale Robertson's disembodied harmony singing) captures something of the not-of-this-earth sensibility of Robertson's previous disc, and it owes nothing to the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe or Lead Belly. Mostly, though, the two have moved the music into the 20th century: not the fiddle/banjo duet itself, which goes back to what the antique song calls "the good old colony times," but to the precision and tonality of more -- relatively -- modern approaches. Some of this survives in its native form in Appalachia, and you can still hear it on stages of Southern fiddle and folk festivals.
Abair & Robertson do what they do very well. The 17 cuts consist of genre standards ("Old Joe Clark," "Ducks on the Millpond," "Bonaparte's Retreat" and the like), but the arrangements are distinctive and the melodies are not always the familiar ones. From the evidence of Masses it was clear that Robertson's knowledge of traditional music is encyclopedic, and I presume Abair's boasts comparable pagination. Their music is bright, vivid and lovely. If you find yourself nodding off through Sleep, see your doctor.
3 October 2009
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