Jeff Black,
(Lotos Nile, 2014)

Philip Gibbs,
Box Canyon Blues
(independent, 2014)

Two contemporary singer-songwriters do it the old-fashioned way, each resisting studio embellishments to lay down solo tracks with a single stringed acoustic instrument. In Philip Gibbs's case it's a guitar, in Jeff Black's guitar or banjo. The results are spare and effective.

One can easily imagine fuller arrangements in most cases. In fact, Gibbs' Box Canyon Blues includes some recorded that way on previous albums (though none on any I've heard personally; my review of his The Petroleum Age appeared in this space on 23 July 2011, and there are no repeats from that one). The 22 cuts "reflect the sound I've adopted in my solo shows," the well-traveled Gibbs, who calls Austin home, declares. While very much a writer and performer in the Southwestern-folk school associated most famously with Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett, he still boasts his own musical personality.

Gibbs, whose characteristic expression runs to the wry, isn't shooting for the stars. He just wants to put forth likable songs able to withstand multiple listenings by showing more depth than a first, moderately attentive listening might lead you to think. The melodies are uncomplicated, inspired by folk ballads, honkytonk, rockabilly, Chuck Berry and other found materials. My favorite of the lot is "One More Shot (for Doc Holliday)," not only because it is an admirably crafted song but because I've had a casual, lifelong fascination with Holliday and his close friend Wyatt Earp. I wonder if Gibbs has read Gary L. Roberts's definitive Doc Holliday: The Life & Legend (2006). In any event, this is an enjoyable collection of songs by a honorable practitioner of the Texas style.

The Nashville-based Jeff Black is notably more intense as both vocalist and composer. Folklore is at moments a work of bitter, borderline-supernatural darkness. It opens with the menacing "Rider Coming" whose elliptical narrative casts an unsettling, uneasy power. "Howdy Do" (someone's very hard life) and "No Quarter" (a criminal on the lam, I think) exemplify the art of bleak, unsentimental songwriting. If Black's singing can assume a harrowing tone, he's also adept of pulling up warm memories ("Folklore," "63 Mercury Meteor") without, however, collapsing into sappiness.

As the title suggests, Black -- a favorite of bluegrass-pop star Alison Krauss, who has covered some of his songs -- places himself within the folk-music tradition, at least as it was redefined in the 1960s by the creative likes of Tom Paxton, whose approach is a direct or indirect inspiration here. "Sing Together" is an affecting homage to the late Pete Seeger, and the brilliant "Flat Car" mordantly reflects upon the futility of trying to be Woody Guthrie in the 21st century. Black knows better than to do that even as he draws from a deep well of American music to fashion some fine and memorable songs.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 June 2014

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