Foghorn Stringband,
Outshine the Sun
(independent, 2012)

Erynn Marshall & Friends,
Tune Tramp
(Hickoryjack, 2013)

If nobody's getting rich at oldtime music -- stringband sounds prominently (though not solely) associated with Appalachian folk tradition -- nobody seems to want to stop playing it. It flourishes in both the usual places and the unexpected ones (Brooklyn, N.Y., for one curious example). Some of it is an impure strain that might better be called neo-oldtime. Still, there's plenty of the old-sounding stuff out there, as witness two outstanding discs up for review.

The Foghorn Stringband hails from Portland, Ore., part of the Northwest's vibrant folk-roots scene. Though the band is new to me, Outshines the Sun is the group's seventh album. Clearly -- sadly, too often the case -- I've been missing something. The Foghorns have the superior chops of the late, lamented Highwoods String Band, along with the Highwoods' irresistible high spirits. The current band evolved from a duo composed of mandolinist Caleb Kauder and fiddler Stephen "Sammy" Lind into its present four-member lineup with the acquisition of two women, Canadian bassist Nadine Landry and guitarist Reeb Willms from Bellingham, Wash.

Recorded live in Kauder's house over the course of several evenings, Sun boasts both a fittingly homey feeling and a song-and-tune repertoire that only those deeply versed in the music could have found their way to. The most familiar songs -- four from the Carter Family catalogue: "Distant Land to Roam," "Gospel Ship," "Homestead on the Farm," "Over the Garden Wall" -- are the sorts of selections no sane listener would find objectionable. The last, the penultimate cut (of a generous 21 total), generated the pleasant thought that I had never heard it done quite like this before. The Foghorns capture the sweetly arcane charm of courtship in a lost era of American life. Written in 1879 as a minstrel-stage piece, it is amiably devoid, in lyric or performance, of anything that might hint at modernity. I suppose one could say that makes it deeply weird, and it does, but it's a good weird.

Aside from the above, a particular favorite of mine is the beautiful -- and beautifully played -- "Jones' Waltz." I'm glad to encounter Ervin Rouse's "Sweeter Than the Flowers," among the most emotionally compelling of hillbilly songs about death and Mother. If the album's sound, captured on a single microphone, is not exactly state-of-the-art studio quality, it provides an oldtime sonic ambience that only enhances the sensation that the music is coming from another time, another place, over the mountains and far away.

Tune Tramp -- 20 cuts of Erynn Marshall's fiddle, joined by musical compatriots scattered over the continent -- offers up one delight after another. The concert commences with a stately, distinctive two-fiddle arrangement of the well-traveled "Bonaparte's Retreat," with New Hampshire's greatest cowboy musician, Skip Gorman, before it moves on to a variety of tunes and songs from folk, early-country and Cajun sources.

A recurring presence on the recording (he's responsible for the title track) is Marshall's companion Carl Jones, a well-regarded player of stringed instruments, songwriter and authority on traditional Southern music. While Jones and Marshall live in music-rich Galax, Va., Marshall grew up in British Columbia where she was a member of the Haints Old Time Stringband with Pharis & Jason Romero. They cut one album, the memorable Shout Monah, prior to going their own ways (my review appears here on 3 April 2010). Happily, like Marshall, the Romeros continue to record on their own (see my 5 January 2013 review of a couple of their albums).

Marshall's fiddling is melody driven and extraordinarily evocative, never coming across as a distant technical exercise. As I type, I am hearing "Trouble on the Mind," which seems to manage at once the conveyance of sorrow and warmth. Another standout, "Railroad Runs Through Georgia," serves as the melodic template for a comic Uncle Dave Macon song whose title escapes me, but this version conjures up another kind of mood, a exhilarating sensation of travel by train across a mountain landscape. "Rovin' Gambler" (done here with Mac Snow's vocal and guitar) has to be among the most-recorded American folk songs, but this one feels uniquely wonderful.

Anywhere you go on this fiddling highway, you're going to meet some nice folks and have a splendid time. Tune Tramp does honorably by a tradition that, against all the odds, seems as joyously alive as ever.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 March 2013

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