Red Tail Ring,
Fall Away Blues
(Earthwork Music, 2016)

Based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Red Tail Ring comprises Michael Beauchamp (guitar, banjo) and Laurel Premo (fiddle, banjo, gourd banjo), who join their voices to sing traditional and original songs in fittingly skeletal arrangements. (I reviewed their previous release, The Heart's Swift Foot, in this space on 20 July 2013. The new CD is their fourth.) Though their sound is their own, their style derives broadly from a range of influences, among them the Carter Family and Ian & Sylvia. It is also apparent that their immersion in folk music is not casual or superficial. A musician friend of mine once remarked, "The ditches are full of the bodies of people who thought folk music is easy." Happily, you will not find Beauchamp and Premo lying by any roadside.

Last time I reviewed them, I mentioned how engagingly they had remade the much-sung "St. James Hospital" and expressed the hope that their next album would carry more traditional material. I am pleased to report that Fall Away Blues has three such numbers, a hymn ("Wondrous Love"), a lyric song ("Come All You Fair & Tender Ladies," actually a ballad fragment that spun off on its own) and "Yarrow" (Child 214). Each is done to moving effect, especially "Tender Ladies," which sparks pleasant memories of my first exposure, via a long-ago Mike Seeger LP, and its nearly overwhelming effect on me at the time. RTR in its own fashion gets to the song's heart, and what it does with it will touch your own.

You can also search the ditches for corpses of those who tried to do -- worse, outdo -- the legendarily strange and harrowing Mississippi bluesman Skip James. RTR knows better than to embark on such a fool's errand. Thus, Beauchamp and Premo transform James's "I'd Rather Be the Devil" into something else, a proto-blues fiddle-and-banjo piece modeled on raggy Southern street music of a century ago, though Premo's singing does not attempt to replicate the period vocal -- which would be a pointless exercise in any event. The two also revise the lyrics, preserving some of the original, including the memorable floating verse My mind got to rambling, like the wild geese in the west, while adding some their own words.

Most of Fall Away Blues, though, is original songs that deftly attach old-sounding tunes to modern lyrics. Here, they don't try to call up the specific language of folk song, for all its ostensible simplicity very hard to replicate, but to tell their stories and express their sentiments in an eloquent 21st-century sort of way. "Gibson Town" is a murder ballad on a subject that rarely figured in the tradition (only "Murder of the Lawson Family" comes to mind), namely a mass shooting -- you know what I mean, the sort of ghastly bloodshed that shocks us in gun-nutty America every few days, then fades from memory because the next one is already competing for our attention. This one took place in Kalamazoo in February 2016. Unless you live in or near Kalamazoo, I'll bet you've already forgotten it.

The title tune, carried by Premo's rippling fiddle tone, is a testimonial to emotional resilience, "Shale Town" powerfully addresses the human and environmental costs of fracking. Overall, RTR carries old and new traditions with grace and conviction.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 October 2016

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