Hog-Eyed Man,
(Yodel-Ay-Hee, 2015)

Alan Jabbour, Ken Perlman & Jim Watson,
You Can't Beat the Classics
(independent, 2015)

Hog-Eyed Man -- why not Hog-Eyed Men, by the way? -- consists of two youngish Georgians, Jason Cade (fiddle) and Rob McMaken (dulcimer, mandolin), whose knowledge of Southern fiddling is wide and deep. As the title indicates, this is their second album devoted to mostly pretty obscure pieces, 17 of them this time, culled from Appalachian sources, either old fiddlers or younger ones who absorbed tunes from them.

In my review of Hog-Eyed Man's previous release (titled, of course, 1, in this space on 28 February 2015), I called the duo's approach a "soulful celebration of a grand tradition." The new disc, more of the same, dazzles and moves once again. While profoundly traditional, it is also remarkably distinctive. Even those with only a nodding familiarity with mountain music would recognize as much immediately.

Though I have listened to uncountable numbers of recordings of fiddlers and fiddle tunes over the years, I am neither a musician in general nor a fiddler in particular; thus I will leave it to others to suss out the technical and musicological aspects of what's going on here. What strikes me is the sort of crystalline beauty of the performances, utterly unlike any you'd hear in the more modern sounds of bluegrass or country fiddle. This is vintage folk music in which the antique tones abound, the Scots/Irish roots of some clearly discernible, played with such arch dignity that it feels almost classical, or as if traveled through the ages to appear suddenly and mysteriously in our own.

Let me make this much clear: while there is no singing, this is nothing like background music. Some of it clearly was intended originally for dancing; the rest was re-conceived or recreated by the Hog-Eyes. Some seems as if it were invented and preserved for no other reason than aural pleasure for the fiddlers and whoever happened to be within hearing distance. In other versions "William Reilly" is a traditional Scottish ballad, but as a fiddle/dulcimer air it's transformed into an intensely moody meditation in which no words are necessary to carry the meaning.

The opening tune, the delightfully titled "Sal's Got Mud Between Her Toes," did not depend even on a wooden instrument for its genesis, at least in the version here. The liner notes inform us that the late Kentucky fiddler Pat Kingery picked it up from "the whistling and singing of his mother." Another particularly affecting piece, "Green River," traces its roots through a freed slave and a Cherokee fiddler on to Euro-American musicians in North Carolina and elsewhere. Each performance on this album transports the listener to a magical place from which we return only reluctantly.

You Can't Beat the Classics takes another approach to the fiddlers' repertoire. These are in good part (if by no means entirely) the titles people in the know think of when they think of the fiddle: "Turkey in the Straw," "Old Joe Clark," "Mississippi Sawyer," "Fire on the Mountain" and the like.

Of the 19 cuts there are a couple of well-worn songs, too: "Casey Jones" (the popular vaudeville song, not the folk ballad most prominently associated with Memphis songster Furry Lewis) and "When You & I Were Young, Maggie" (a mid-19th century parlor number whose popularity lasted into the first half of the 20th; it's one of the first songs I remember hearing). The vocals are by guitarist Jim Watson, who does his usual terrific job. For purposes of full disclosure, if anybody cares, I probably ought to add that I've known Watson casually but amiably -- we cross paths once in a while and exchange Christmas cards -- for a long time. I have a policy of not reviewing albums by artists whom I consider friends, but then, I was listening to him (when he was with the North Carolina-based neo-oldtime band Red Clay Ramblers) years before I met him.

Alan Jabbour, a highly respected fiddler and scholar of the instrument, is perhaps best known for his work in the 1970s with the Hollow Rock String Band. Ken Perlman has cut a range of exceptional recordings of different but related traditional musics. Jabbour's liner notes disclose that the title of the disc came out of a fiddle jam when, after an old favorite had been indulged, one of the participants offered the appreciative pronouncement "You can't beat the classics."

No, you can't. On the other hand, you have to do them right, or they can sound like the tossed-off efforts one used to hear on the kind of cheap LPs pitched in the wee hours on radio and television. (You have to be of a certain age to remember those.) Not to worry. This is a trio of pros so immersed and expert in the old-time tradition that you'd swear they grew up with it. What they pull out of the ether around them is a homey sound, almost conversational, with warmth and humor in sufficient abundance that unless you step back for a moment you won't fully appreciate how accomplished these guys are at their respective instruments. And that's not to mention how much at ease they are in each other's musical company.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 February 2016

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