Steppin' In It, |
Last Winter in the Copper Country
(Hippo Coop, 2002)
Michigan is not known as a hotbed of Cajun music. On the other hand, perhaps some Acadian vibes blowing over from Canada in a winter storm spawned the Cajun songs on Steppin' In It's latest disc. Whatever the explanation, the Cajun songs are there, comfortably rubbing shoulders with blues, country, bluegrass, old-timey and even 1920s-style jazz. No, Steppin' In It isn't a bunch of purists, but this album is an awful lot of fun.
Steppin' In It is Joshua Davis (acoustic and resophonic guitars, banjo, mandolin) and brothers Andy (harmonica, accordion, trumpet) and Joe Wilson (dobro, steel and acoustic guitars). The emphasis is on the dobro, harmonica and guitars; fiddle, usually a staple of this kind of music, only appears on the few cuts that include guest musician Jonathan Price. Dominic Suchyta plays standup bass on most tracks. Short-wave radio even gets a mention in the instrument list; it provides an appropriate opening to the 1929 show tune "Do Something." It captures the feeling of listening to music in the days when radio was king of the airwaves. The production (by Steppin' In It and Glenn Brown) even gives the cut a tinny sound to mimic early recording technology, but not enough to interfere with the music. The other number in this jazzy vein is called "Four Little Men," which trades short-wave radio for washboard and is the cheeriest song I've ever heard about castaways who come to a bad end. Despite appearances, it is an original penned by Joshua Davis, who wrote most of the originals on this album.
Pinning a label on Steppin' In It is difficult because they range across the American musical map with as much enthusiasm as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did in its early days. They start from a country/bluegrass base but go much farther; "Gold and Silver" is Cajun in the verses, reggae in the choruses and still manages to work. "Trouble in Mind" is country blues with a nod toward Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee while the title track is an understated folk number about hard winters. Then there's "(Boom) Crash" -- the liner notes say, "Folk 'em if they can't take a joke," and that about covers this hard-rockish anthem, which is still much better than most bands' one-off joke numbers. Their version of "Red Haired Boy" sports more feeling than finesse with its wah-wah harmonica but is still fun.
The album opens with an intense rendition of the traditional "The Butcher's Girl." Davis' husky lead vocal reminded me of Tony Furtado and the prominent dobro didn't hurt that impression. At first, Davis' voice seems more suited to rock, but he does an excellent job with the varied material on this album. The world-weary feel he brings to slow country-rock songs like "Dustbowl Overtures" is perfect.
All in all, Last Winter in the Copper Country is a toe-tappin' good time. Lots of bands play freewheeling bluegrass-based music these days, and Steppin' In It is a strong up-and-coming band on that scene. With any luck, they'll just keep getting better but in the meantime, enjoy this album.