Dana & Susan Robinson,
Native Soil
(Offspring, 2005)

Dana & Susan Robinson,
'Round My Door
(Threshold, 2008)

The North Carolina-based Dana and Susan Robinson deal in full-bodied traditional and tradition-inflected music. Hearing them, one thinks -- as the best neo-traditionalists always encourage us to do -- how nearly inexhaustible a resource folk music is. To keep from growing stale, it needs only the right performers and performances. Here it's the Robinsons doing it up right. For that, they deserve our gratitude and our attention.

'Round My Door highlights mostly Dana's originals, set in a range of American landscapes, from their rural Southeastern home to the Pacific Northwest. He also tackles all the lead vocals, playing guitars (acoustic and electric), mandolin and harmonica, while Susan backs him on banjo or piano. A small folk-rock band tastefully accompanies them, affording the arrangements a warm and distinctive texture. Dana's voice is a marvelous instrument, both weathered and butter-soaked, and he is one exceptional composer.

Though obviously based in older sounds, beyond that obvious consideration the Robinsons's own sound does not lend itself to easily recognizable influences. Maybe you could say that Woody Guthrie (whose "Pastures of Plenty" opens the disc in a version unlike any you've heard) might have sounded a little like this if he were alive and artistically vital today, but maybe not. In any event, that's meaningless speculation, not penetrating insight. What I do know is that even familiar folk-song themes, such as the hobo life ("Boys of the Tracks"), railroad labor ("Hell on Wheels") and home (the title tune), are rendered fresh in the Robinsons's more than capable musical imaginations.

Native Soil, recorded three years ago, is another dandy example of what the Robinsons can do, this time with a body of mostly traditional songs and tunes. Here, Dana's fiddling -- not heard on 'Round (where Cailen Campbell steps in) -- is prominently featured, as is Susan's singing. Again, the arrangements are innovative, incorporating at times drums and electric guitars in ways that enhance, not distract from, the song.

Most of the songs are standards ("East Virginia," "When First Unto This Country," "Red Rocking Chair"), but somehow they sound at once comfortingly recognizable and newly arrived. My favorite cut combines the old comic ballad "Miller & the Lass" and Dana's original fiddle tune "Vern's Reel," but everything on this CD gives me pleasure. Roots still find nourishment in Native Soil.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

4 October 2008

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