various artists,
40 Years of Stony Plain
(Stony Plain, 2016)

Since the label's 10th anniversary, Stony Plain has released a compilation of its music every five years. (See my 20 August 2011 Rambles.NET review of 35 Years of Stony Plain.) Four decades in, we have this three-disc anthology showcasing the sorts of contemporary roots sounds this Edmonton, Alberta-based imprint -- founded by Holger Petersen, still at the helm -- has championed over the course of a distinguished, award-gathering career.

Anybody with an ear for blues, folk, jazz and country will appreciate the results. For non-Canadians, though, what gives the collection (as with the others) its particular interest is the focus on North Country artists whom many will be hearing for the first time.

True, there are familiar American names. Maria Muldaur, Duke Robillard and Rory Block have released a relative abundance of Stony Plain albums. Others such as Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Doug Sahm, Jennifer Warnes and Steve Earle intersected with the label just long enough to be represented on 40 Years. African-American bluesmen, living and dead, are here, too: Rosco Gordon, Billy Boy Arnold, Sam Chatmon, Jay McShann, Joe Louis Walker.

But the emphasis, properly so, is on Canadian performers. Far and away the best known is Ian Tyson, among the most gifted in-the-tradition songwriters the North American folk revival has produced. Tyson contributes "Cottonwood Canyon," from his late-life masterpiece Carnero Vaquero (which I reviewed in this space on 30 May 2015). Another Alberta-based singer-songwriter, the country-folk balladeer Tim Hus ("Wild Rose Waltz"), celebrates the lives of ordinary Canadians in the fashion of his mentor, the late Stompin' Tom Connors. Guitarists Harry Manx & Kevin Breit set Mary Elizabeth Frye's poem "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" to rather stunning, not to say unsettling, effect in an arrangement that calls Ry Cooder at his most inspired to mind, and by that I mean naught but supreme praise.

If the first disc consists largely of broadly folkish singer-songwriters, the second -- the most consistently satisfying, in my hearing, though I'm not knocking the other two by any stretch -- showcases blues and r&b, perhaps most closely reflecting Petersen's tastes as a longtime blues deejay on Canadian radio. Every cut, electric or acoustic, crackles with soulful musicianship. Besides the expected excellence of the African-American contributors (not to mention veteran Euro-American acts Muldaur and Block), Winnipeg-based white guy Big Dave McLean delivers a fierce, slide-driven "Atlanta Moan," associated in separate versions with early bluesmen Tampa Red and Barbecue Bob Hicks, who would like this one a whole lot, I'm pretty certain. Paul Reddick's original "Mourning Dove" is a neo-downhome blues of stellar quality, in the vein of J.J. Cale and Tony Joe White but very much in Reddick's own voice. (I will be reviewing his Stony Plain debut, Ride the One, here soon.) The late Jeff Healey revives Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues" in a tasty, good-natured acoustic-guitar arrangement.

The third (and at 47 minutes the shortest) disc features an assortment of blues, folk and singer-songwriter material, including two cuts of what must be the final recordings of onetime Mississippi Sheik Sam Chatmon, captured in San Diego in April 1979 with young Canadian blues buffs Colin Linden and Doc MacLean accompanying. As impressive in their way are a couple of heretofore-unreleased originals by the late Bob Carpenter, who died young while still but a cult figure in his native Canada. His "Satan's Golden Chain" is a really good song, and the yodeling will send invisible cold, icy fingers creeping up your spine.

A final observation: Stony Plain's definition of "folk" and "roots" apparently does not extend to Appalachian banjo tunes, oldtime string bands and bluegrass. Or English and Scottish traditional music, for that matter. Not, of course, that these are in short supply elsewhere, but I'm just sayin'.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 July 2016

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