The Quiet American,
Songs from a Rocking Chair
(independent, 2014)

Billy Strings & Don Julin,
Fiddle Tune X
(independent, 2014)

In the current iteration of the folk revival, the emphasis is as often as not on innovative approaches. That usually means the infusion of elements from non-folk genres, typically pop, jazz and world. Sometimes, in fact, it's hard to discern the traditional strains amid all the fusion. Not so with Fiddle Tune X and Songs from a Rocking Chair. You could have heard recordings like these half a century ago if you were a folk listener or musician seeking approximations of authenticity and taking your inspiration from Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the like. Where the influences are concerned, I should add, this is truer of the former than of the latter.

Between them, guitarist Billy Strings (not his birth name, I presume) and mandolinist Don Julin, from Michigan, span two generations. If I may judge by his appearance, Julin has the 1960s revival within living memory, while Strings (barely more than 20 years old) knows only the legend. It's clear, in any event, that both know their Doc Watson. Fiddle Tune X opens with Doc's signature flat-picking instrumental "Beaumont Rag" and follows it with Mel Tillis/Wayne Walker's "Walk On, Boy" a rewrite of "Johnny Henry" covered on Watson's second Vanguard album in 1966. Without specifically researching the issue, I'd estimate that between one-third and not quite half of the 17 cuts derive from Watson versions of old folk and country numbers.

Does this matter when the picking is as sweet and accomplished as it is here? Surely not. Besides, I suspect that for most listeners the material will be fresh, and familiar or unfamiliar, it deserves continued life and breath. In short, veteran Watson devotee or not, you'll likely enjoy this album. And in fairness, Strings and Julin put new energy into the songs in the live performances captured here. One looks forward to further releases from the two. Still....

A final cavil: What's with the lazy crediting of "Jimmy Rogers" as composer of "Miss the Mississippi & You"? Bill Halley -- not to be confused with the early rock 'n' roller Bill Haley -- wrote it, and Jimmy Rogers (1924-1997), who played guitar in Muddy Waters' band in the 1950s and had a few solo hits on the blues charts, is not country singer Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), who cut "Mississippi" in 1932.

To my knowledge The Quiet American is the first folk act to name itself after a Graham Greene novel. Fittingly, these two Americans -- vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Aaron and Nicole Keim -- aren't out to make a fuss, just some approachable, unfancy rooted music.

On Songs from a Rocking Chair, accompanied by Ben Bonham (harmonica, resonator guitar) and Ronnie Ontiveros (bass), they offer up 10 songs and two instrumentals, all feeling as if sung and picked on a front porch over the course of a relaxed country evening. They include, though are not limited to, unpretentious originals attesting to their immersion in older traditions. "Carroll County Blues," for example, is not the venerable Mississippi fiddle tune; it's self-composed lyrics set to the melody of the hobo ballad "Cannonball Blues." Straight from the tradition they pluck Papa Harvey Hull's "Mobile Line" (aka "France Blues"), Charlie Patton's "Some of These Days," Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" and some more. It's all kind to ear and spirit.

music review by
Jerome Clark

25 October 2014

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