Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan,
Yonder
(Sugar Hill, 1996)

This is a recording of deep magic, as close as anyone has ever come to creating the music sung by ghosts. It is haunting in the truest sense. Yonder was released three years ago, and was nominated for Best Folk Album Grammy, but lost to Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad, a fine album, but in no way comparable to Yonder, a true masterpiece, and one of the few albums that I play over and over again, always finding new meanings and nuances.

Its elements are simplicity itself: one voice (Peter Rowan's) and two instruments, although the combinations shift from song to song. Jerry Douglas plays both Dobro and Weissenborn guitar, while Rowan plays guitar and mandolin. No fancy studios, either -- these songs were recorded in living rooms, "with classic Neuman tube microphones through tube mic preamps ... to preserve that good living room sound." The result is amazing enough to make everyone who records acoustic music want to do so in the living room of their choice.

Rowan says the purpose of the album was to find "new melodies in the old songs, discovering our own way of getting there," and that "there" is "yonder," defined on the cover as "within sight, but not near; further." Rowan and Douglas accomplish the task, getting not only yonder, but beyond.

There are four Rowan originals, including the leadoff song, "Wayside Tavern," in which the singer, out of a wintry midnight, "stepped in to join the din/So carefree and so loud/Just to lose old Mister Blues/And mingle with the crowd." Douglas's Dobro sighs and moans behind Rowan's fingerpicking and full tenor, and we are drawn into not only the tavern, but the album itself, ready to listen to its varied voices.

The Weissenborn guitar's insistent throb opens the next cut, the traditional "Cannonball Blues," in which the strings and Rowan's yodel proclaim that his baby's "gone, solid gone." The dialogue between the two guitars is heartbreaking. That dialogue is renewed in the Dobro/guitar duet that begins "Lullaby of the Leaves," followed by Rowan's vocal solo, a tour de force combination of jazz, old time and bluegrass.

"Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues," a Jimmie Rodgers song, gives Rowan a chance to show off his playful yodel and somewhat lighten the mood before "Texas Rangers," a near-five minute song with Douglas's Weissenborn doubling Rowan's vocal line throughout. The simple melody and antiquated lyrics tell of the slaughter of a troop of Texas Rangers by a survivor. Near the end, Rowan's mandolin adds an eerie third voice to the mix.

The tragedy is relieved by Rowan's own "Can't Get There From Here," a wry and comic twist on the "Yonder" theme. But its good humor is quickly replaced by the apocalyptic visions of Estil Ball's "Tribulations," whose chorus states, "When the fire comes down from heaven/And the blood shall fill the sea/I'll be carried home by Jesus/And forever with him be." In Rowan and Douglas's hands, the visions are at once terrifying and strangely seductive. "When You And I Were Young, Maggie" gives some relief from these Christian terrors, with a soft and lovely instrumental duet.

Two traditional songs follow: "The Girl in the Blue Velvet Band," a tale of theft, betrayal and death, and "Chicka-Li-Lee-O," a mandolin-driven chant further propelled by Rowan's intense high tenor and falsetto, creating a nearly unbearable cry of pain for love lost.

Two of Rowan's originals bring the album to a fitting close. "You Taught Me How To Lose," reminiscent of Jimmie Rodgers, gives us a much needed breather from the passion of the previous song. "Where Angels Weep" truly takes us "younder," to show us "Fire on the joyous lake/Thunder roars, the cauldron boils/In the morning when we wake/Where angels weep and then we'll toil." The landscape and images are strange and mysterious, the music simple and seemingly familiar, as though we have at last come home to a place we had remembered only in dreams.

The whole album seems dream-like, filled with dark scenes and barely heard sounds, ancient tones that we have left behind but which still sing to us in our blood, a sense furthered by the brief, unlisted extra instrumental track that speaks softly of all that has come before. There has not been as powerful a duet album since the Louvin Brothers' classic Tragic Songs of Life. If you value acoustic music, or music at all as a medium through which things may be said that are beyond words, you must own this album.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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