Eric Brace & Karl Straub,
Hangtown Dancehall
(Red Beet, 2013)

Two songs from the mid-19th century California gold rush survive in American memory. One is "Days of '49" (most recently available in a version by Bob Dylan), and the other is "Sweet Betsy from Pike." The first, in the fashion of many folk songs, is of anonymous authorship, The lyrics to the second can be traced to one John A. Stone; the melody is traditional. As one of the very first old ballads I heard -- I must have been five years old at the time -- "Betsy" has always occupied a warm spot in mind and ear.

Hangtown Dancehall, the labor of singer-songwriters Eric Brace & Karl Straub, falls, on the other hand, into a category to which exposure ordinarily has me glancing frantically for the nearest available weapon. I'm not sure exactly which category, mind you. It could be a soundtrack for a musical (two strikes right there), or it could be a concept album (the third). If I owned any firearms, I'd be racing for the cabinet right now....

Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, Brace & Straub don't exactly defy expectations -- I know something of both of their work, especially Brace's with usual musical partner Peter Cooper -- when they prove themselves up to the job of telling a story, which is the easier part, with consistently good songs, which is the harder. In fact, most of the songs could stand alone and separate, and that's exactly what you want in an album you're going to hear more than once.

Hangtown is best characterized as a folk opera. If "Betsy" (which appears twice in instrumental arrangements) is the only true folk piece by strict definition, at least some songs -- Brace's lovely "I Know a Bird," for instance -- sound like old-timers. The plot is as wildly melodramatic as any old Western movie's, or for that matter any grand old opera's, relating Ike and Betsy's courtship and separation, during which bodies pile up and one dead guy is mistaken for somebody else before lovers at last reunite. The Hangtown of the title is, or was, Placerville, California -- quick to serve capital punishment on a range of offenders, violent or merely greedy or just stupid -- but the song titled "Hanging Tree," a Brace original, is not to be confused with the 1959 Marty Robbins hit associated with the film of the same name.

For the project Brace & Straub assemble a host of respectable colleagues: Kelly Willis, Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, Jason Ringenberg, Andrea Zonn and John Wesley Harding (author of literary novels under his real name, Wesley Stace). Even the most casual hearing suggests a good time is had by all participants, and that will include listeners.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 April 2014

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