John McCutcheon,
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
(June Appal, 1977;
Rounder, 2000)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a re-release of an album first recorded in 1977. The album has a timeless quality to it, and could just as easily have been produced yesterday. In fact, it is likely that the music on this album can be better appreciated now, with the growing interest in Celtic music in recent years.

This recording features the hammered dulcimer, a popular folk instrument which was a precursor to the piano. Its harp-like, percussive sound is quite versatile, especially in the able hands of John McCutcheon, who also provides fiddle, guitar and vocals. At the time of the recording, McCutcheon had only been playing the dulcimer for approximately 30 months. (Now, this fact impresses me greatly, because I have been playing the fiddle for about the same amount of time, and I am certainly not ready to record an album -- especially one of such quality as this!) Joining McCutcheon on the album are Paul Reisler (guitar), Tina Liza-Jones (concertina, vocals), Wayne Erbsen (fiddle, vocals), Bob Jordan (guitar, snares) and Rich Kirby (mandolin, banjo).

McCutcheon has produced an excellent display of the hammered dulcimer's versatility with this recording. Ragtime, classical, bluegrass and old fiddle tunes are all blended together to provide the listener with a buffet of folk music. The classical fan will enjoy the solo dulcimer track "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring," a Bach melody, as well as the final track, "Greensleeves," both of which are good examples of McCutcheon's expressive playing.

There are a few vocal tracks on this album, and McCutcheon seems as versatile with his voice as he is with his instruments. "Every Bush and Tree" has the sound of an old-time country waltzing tune. The fiddle and dulcimer complement each other well in this song, and the backup harmonies are well-placed. "If I Were a Featherbed," written by McCutcheon, is a sentimental sort of song with soft, lilting vocals, while "Who Will Sing for Me?" had visions of an old silent country and western movie churning through my head, and featured some superb harmonies.

This album also has lots to offer for the fan of Celtic music. There are a number of traditional sets, including jigs, reels and airs with a variety of accompanying instruments. Guitar, mandolin, banjo, concertina and fiddle all blend well with the dulcimer to provide an enjoyable sound. Since the dulcimer provides a gentler sound than many of the instruments associated with this type of music, I was rather surprised at the energy level in some of the sets. The set composed of "St. Anne's Reel," "Cricket on the Hearth," "Kitchen Girl" and "Mississippi Sawyer" was particularly upbeat and featured the crisp, clear sound of old-style fiddling. "Planxty George Brabazon" and "Si Bheag, Si Mhor" were combined for a lovely set of airs with a gentle, flowing feel.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a multi-dimensional album, providing the listener with a good selection of tunes highlighting the many moods of the hammered dulcimer. McCutcheon is an able musician, playing music from a number of different genres with feeling and finesse. This album should appeal to a good variety of audiences -- not only are its ageless tunes still popular today, but McCutcheon lends his talent as a musician to a wonderful instrument which deserves more attention.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]

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