Sparky & Rhonda Rucker, |
The Mountains Above & the Valleys Below
Folk-scene veterans James "Sparky" and Rhonda Rucker, who live in east Tennessee, offer up a straightforward, crisply delivered collection of familiar Southern ballads, songs, hymns and spirituals. Many neo-trad artists these days dress up old material in new apparel with more complex arrangements, but here the tunes are delivered the old-fashioned way, with guitar, banjo, harmonica and the unaccompanied voice (plus occasional piano or bones), with emphasis on the stories and sentiments that caused these songs to be written, then carried on, in the first place.
For me, one leading measure of a record's success is how often I want to hear it, and how well or poorly it stands up to repeated listening. The Mountains Above & the Valleys Below passes that test easily. It's been steady company for the two weeks or so since it showed up in my mail, and it does not feel likely to outwear its welcome any time soon.
The disc starts off with the enigmatic Reconstruction-era "Reuben's Train," known in a dizzying array of variants ("900 Miles," "500 Miles," "Riding on That Train 45," even "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?") and endlessly intriguing for what it doesn't tell you but only hints at elliptically: a nightmarish landscape of desperate wanderers, violent men and hell-bound trains. If somebody were to waken me in the middle of the night and demand to know what my all-time favorite traditional American song is, I'd probably mumble, "Reuben's Train." This is an exceptionally enjoyable recreation of it. I imagine that before it, somebody besides the Ruckers has thought to combine old-time Appalachian banjo with African-American slide guitar, but I don't recall hearing it personally. Here the combination works to striking effect, incidentally underscoring the historical point that the song (whose genesis is even murkier than most folksong origins) is the property of both black and white Americans.
Sparky is an assured, expressive singer, and so is Rhonda, whose unfancy, plaintive, almost inexplicably moving rendering of "Bound for the Promised Land" lingers in memory to air on the mental radio long afterwards. Another pleasant surprise is the unaccompanied vocal duo treatment of "Rovin' Gambler." "Down in the Valley" -- one of those songs that since "everybody does it" nobody does it -- inspires a heart-felt performance.
With other well-known titles, such as "Pretty Polly" and "Mole in the Ground," the Ruckers ratchet down the tempo so that they can explore the surprisingly rich melodies. Both are usually played as hard-driving pieces depending for their power upon narrative intensity (in the former) and startling imagery (in the second). But I hadn't grasped till now just how lovely the "Mole" tune actually is. In the case of the often-recorded murder ballad "Pretty Polly" (perhaps most famous from Ralph Stanley's version), the Ruckers's slowed-down telling affords Sparky, who does the singing, the chance to explore its blues inflections.
Mountains Above is an old-fashioned folk record in the best sense of the phrase. Done by lesser talents, all of this could have sounded stale, but the Ruckers, who know this material so intimately that it feels almost as if their natural speaking voice, give these antique songs new life and vigor.
22 November 2008
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