The Possum Trot Orchestra,
Harbor Road
(Southern Can, 2006)

Harbor Road is the second album by this outstanding Fort Wayne, Indiana-based four-piece band, a vehicle for the literate (non-collaborative) songwriting of members John Minton and Susie Suraci. (The other members are multi-instrumentalist Rob Suraci and mandolinist Dave Kartholl.) The Possum Trot Orchestra, which defines itself as a modern folk outfit, fashions its personality out of tradition-inspired ideas set in pop and rock structures.

I suppose the non-folk influences are Neil Young on one hand, smooth-harmony 1970s/'80s California country-rock bands on the other. On the third hand, you might say that this is early 20th-century stringband music for the early 21st century. The "Possum Trot" in the band's name ties it, at least abstractly, to old rural medicine-show comedy and song, for example Lowe Stokes and His North Georgians' 1929 recording "Wish I Had Stayed in the Wagon Yard," a crudely but hilariously satirical narrative documenting "Old Hayseed's" mistreatment by a "slick as lard" contingent of "city ducks." Just prior to his misadventure (in which, no surprise, immoderate alcohol consumption plays a significant role), the unfortunate Hayseed informs us that he is (or maybe was) a "deacon in a hard-shell church down near Possum Trot."

Susie Suraci's songs are more poppish than Minton's -- you could say they validate the otherwise ordinarily abused practice of country-pop -- though their respective styles mesh amazingly well. As an academic folklorist and scholar of traditional music, Minton composes material that takes off from venerable themes and characters -- striking workers, wounded soldiers, rambling hobos, would-be victims matching wits with the devil -- and peppers it with folksong-derived quotes ("heart like railroad steel," "doney gal," "the girl I left behind"). Yet the results don't come across as an effort to recreate the sounds of old tunes (not, of course, that there's anything wrong with that). The melodies are not obviously adapted from folk templates but assume their own unique shape. Minton sings all of this in a voice that is sometimes gruff, sometimes whispery, always unpolished in an endearing sort of way.

The more conventionally pretty singer, Suraci handles vocals on her own well-crafted songs, set to flowing melodies carrying intelligent, sometimes fierce lyrics. Those lyrics are often focused on social and political issues -- the Katrina catastrophe, domestic violence, manipulation of media by the control freaks of the current regime -- but do so without a self-destructing self-righteous tone. As with PTO's previous CD (which I reviewed in this space on 4 February 2006), the mixing is such that Suraci's vocals are not sailing terribly high above the instrumental floor, so you'll have to listen attentively. It helps that this time PTO provides lyrics with the sleeve booklet.

It's a nice touch, too, that the band gives us a fairly straightforward performance (with vocal by Rob Suraci) of Blind Lemon Jefferson's great "Bad Luck Blues." In almost everything it does, PTO is boldly lighting into new territory, but it's refreshing to know that, every once in a while, it is not afraid to return to the old homestead to take its ease among the good and true. John Minton will tell you what old song the last five words of the previous sentence come from.

by Jerome Clark
7 April 2007