Erynn Marshall & Carl Jones,
Sweet Memories ... Never Leave
(Dittyville, 2015)

Pharis & Jason Romero,
A Wanderer I'll Stay
(Lula, 2015)

I first encountered the Romeros and Erynn Marshall when they comprised the entirety of a magnificent oldtime string band, the Haints, whose CD Shout Monah I reviewed here on 3 April 2010. Since then Marshall has moved from British Columbia to small-town Virginia, where she married fellow folk musician Carl Jones. Pharis & Jason Romero continue to reside in a rural village in their native province, where they craft quality banjos. Sweet Memories ... Never Die is the first release to bear Marshall & Jones's joint byline. The Romeros have issued three previous recordings under their own names.

The two albums here considered are both based, if in differing degrees, in traditional music. A Wanderer I'll Stay is two-thirds original material, mostly songs by Pharis, and bass and drums show up on some cuts. Nobody is going to call it an oldtime record, notwithstanding three strong treatments of American folk songs. Their arrangement of "Goodbye, Old Paint" grows out of the definitive Jess Morris reading collected by John Lomax, as powerful an authentic folk piece as exists in the American canon. (You can hear it on A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings [Rounder, 1997] and read the colorful background in a chapter of Stephen Wade's The Beautiful Music All Around Us [University of Illinois Press, 2012].) Morris, a Texan who had been a cowboy in his youth, learned the song from fellow drover Charley Willis around 1878. In common with a legion of immortal traditional songs, its authorship is unknown, and it's as much an aggregation of floating verses as a coherent narrative. The Romeros find a way to burrow deep, and that way is moving and memorable. I say that only because I try not to use the adjective "stunning" even when it applies.

Oddly, several of the originals sound a bit like Gillian Welch songs, in the written, sung and produced meanings. I don't intend this as a criticism, but it's a little surprising given the Romeros' deep background in the same traditions that inform Welch's (and companion David Rawlings') approach. This can't have been on purpose, and it's probably no more significant than the influence Bob Dylan exerted, consciously and unconsciously, on a previous generation of even the most sophisticated folk singers. In any event, these are, undeniably, intelligently crafted songs. The title song is a particular beauty, and "Ballad of Old Bill" tells an engaging story with particular wit and grace.

Unlike the Romeros, Marshall & Jones don't attempt to expand the vocabulary of tradition. Sweet Memories is purely, comfortably an album of Appalachian sounds, and except for their consistent excellence, their occasional self-penned numbers don't draw attention to themselves. You'll have to check the credits to pick them out.

A student of the late West Virginia master Melvin Wine, Marshall is a superb fiddler able to call gorgeous tones and sinewy, stick-in-the-ear melodies (e.g., "Camp Chase," "Piney Woods," her own "Rocky Point") out of her instrument. Jones's charmingly gruff vocals come with an old Southern drawl that draws the listener into the lyrics. I also love Jones's evocative parlor style finger-picking on "Rambling Gambler," related to "Danville Girl."

On an album of nothing but stellar moments, the couple both honor oldtime music and find their own distinctive place within it. While it's familiar in one sense, in another this is very much Marshall & Jones, not to be mistaken for anyone or anything else. More than ordinarily gifted, they find new truths in a musical style already notably devoid of falsehoods. You don't hear something like this that often, and if I were you, I wouldn't let it get past you.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 June 2015

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