The Honey Dewdrops,
Silver Lining
(independent, 2012)

Stylistically speaking, the Honey Dewdrops -- the married couple Kagey Parrish and Laura Wortman -- fall somewhere between Robin & Linda Williams and David Rawlings & Gillian Welch. Like the Williamses (whom I have long known and with whom I have written songs) the Dewdrops live in Virginia, where Silver Lining was recorded in a cabin in the remote mountain community of Catawba. Barry Lawson contributes bass and mandolin, and Caleb Stine plays guitar on one cut.

The arrangements are out of an Appalachian musical tradition that predates bluegrass, of which there is no trace to be found in these tracks. Wortman's old-time banjo, prominent on several cuts, affords the impression that the songs are older than they are, but only the venerable hymn "Bright Morning Stars," the final cut, dates to an earlier era. The other 10 cuts, eight songs and two instrumentals, are originals. The latter nicely echo banjo tunes of a century and more ago. Of the songs, only "Hills of My Home" -- melancholic, hard-hitting and moving -- is set specifically in the Appalachian landscape. If nothing else (and it's hard to imagine anything else), the vile practice of mountaintop removal, the subject of "Hills," can be credited with inspiring songwriting as impassioned as its counterpart from the struggle against the mining barons in the 1920s and 1930s.

Silver Lining is impressive, no doubt. The Dewdrops know how to fashion memorable melodies, and Parrish and Wortman are superior vocalists. There is much to admire about this album. Even so, on repeated and more attentive listening, one notices that mostly, the words have little in common with folk themes in any ordinarily understood definition, even a loose modern one. In other words, no ballads (as in story-songs), no playful rural humor, no quotes or borrowings from aged words and tunes, little beyond the arrangements to place the material in a cultural, historical and geographical context. I wonder what the Dewdrops are getting out of the tradition. If it is a sound, is it missing the spirit that engendered that sound?

That doesn't mean these are unworthy lyrics -- their subjects, in fact, are as often as not profound ones, eloquently expressed -- but to my hearing (yours will render its own judgment) they provoke some degree of cognitive dissonance. One can't help being nagged by this question: why go to the trouble of making these songs have the sonic resonance of something they otherwise aren't?

Maybe the next Honey Dewdrops album will resolve what some will experience as a kind of aesthetic discord. Those who don't care one way or another -- perhaps most of the duo's audience -- and those who do, though, will agree that this is an album that in its many compelling moments communicates power and pleasure.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 September 2012

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