Chris Stuart & Backcountry, |
Checking out a Sing Out! profile (Spring 2008) a few minutes ago, I learned that Chris Stuart composed the finest song I have ever heard -- or, I'm confident, that anybody will ever write -- about Stephen Foster. I was introduced to "Dear Friends & Gentle Hearts" years ago on Suzanne Thomas's 1998 Rounder CD of the same name, on which as it happens I also have a cut, "Leaving This Land," which I co-wrote with Robin and Linda Williams. Small world indeed.
In a very good year for bluegrass music, Crooked Man still manages to stand out. It will roost high on many best-of lists when such are tolled as 2008 recedes. This is a superior recording on any number of levels: the breath-taking songwriting, the inventive arrangements, the extraordinarily seamless fusion of innovation and tradition. It's the kind of CD that both affirms the genre and transcends it. In this instance, it does so not by moving into pop, rock and jazz territory, as some ambitious contemporary bluegrass bands have done, but by delving into the antique folk music -- without itself sounding in any way antique -- out of which bluegrass arose six decades ago.
The California-based Chris Stuart & Backcountry are not the first modernist band to do so, of course. The first was the Country Gentlemen in the latter 1950s, and later the Seldom Scene, and currently Blue Highway. The last of these also boasts exceptional songwriting (see my review of Through the Window of a Train in this space, 8 March 2008). Even so, CS & BC mark their claim over an even wider landscape. Though all of the material is generated within the band (10 of the cuts are by Stuart, two by banjoist Janet Beazley, one instrumental by fiddler Christian Ward), the sensibility often resonates centuries-old balladry, not only in its Appalachian expression but in the Anglo-Celtic one that preceded it. Stuart's "The Streets of Charlottetown" captures that language so perfectly that I first thought it had to be traditional. Of course, it doesn't hurt that (1) the melody owes something to "The Lakes of Pontchartrain" and (2) Beazley's pennywhistle takes the arrangement nearly -- though not quite -- all the way out of bluegrass country.
The title song, a strange Stuart-penned tale of a man whose (literal) curse is the fiddle he plays masterfully and obsessively, conjures up the unlikely vision of a Robert Johnson who lived long enough to fall under Bill Monroe's influence, or perhaps of a Johnson who happened upon a collection of Child ballads. I would not have imagined that a song could be written that at once called to mind "Crossroads Blues" and "The Two Sisters," but here it is. Stuart's immunity to cliche is evident as well in "Thirteen Steps," set at the close of the Civil War. Civil War songs -- recently written ones, not their 19th-century counterparts -- are a bluegrass staple, especially in recent years, but Stuart's is not about the travails of combat soldiers but about the hanging of the Lincoln-assassination conspirators. It's in the tradition of what once were called goodnight ballads, represented as the last testament of a condemned man (e.g., "Gallows Pole," "Macpherson's Rant," "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me"), and it'll make you gulp.
Rounding out the band are Eric Uglum (guitars, harmony vocals) and Austin Ward (bass). Roger Gillespie contributes drums and percussion to two cuts. Stuart, guitarist and old-time banjo picker, delivers lead vocals in a compellingly weather-beaten tenor. The CD concludes with a beautifully atmospheric gospel tune, "I See God Coming Down the Road." If you love bluegrass, Crooked Man will knock you for a loop. Even if you don't, it'll steal your heart and won't give it back.
8 November 2008
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