Mac Traynham,
I'm Going That Way
(Copper Creek, 2004)

Though he has roots in southern Virginia stretching back to his childhood, Mac Traynham, who lives with his wife Jenny in rural Floyd County, is not in truth a backwoods rustic. As a young man he learned of music already "essentially from another world," in his words, though that music had once been very much a part of the world of the Virginia countryside: the fiddle and banjo tunes and ballads of the highlands and lowlands of Appalachia. For years now, he -- sometimes with his wife, sometimes with other musicians -- has been an active figure in the performance, preservation and renewal of what Mike Seeger calls the "old Southern sound."

Besides being an exceptional interpreter and an awesomely able fiddler and banjo player, he lays claim to something like encyclopedic knowledge of the music, with a keen grasp of its history and of the men and women who carried it on. All that works to eminently satisfying effect on I'm Going That Way. Not just another old-time exercise, it stands in the classiest of company, right alongside such high-toned competition as Mike Seeger's True Vine (Smithsonian Folkways, 2003) and Ginnie Hawker and Tracy Schwarz's Draw Closer (Rounder, 2004; my review appears elsewhere on the Rambles.NET site). I'm Going That Way reminds me -- because sometimes I forget -- why I went that way long ago, after a passing acquaintance told me about a band known as the New Lost City Ramblers.

It is easy to get cynical about this stuff, of course. Many pieces get recycled without mercy, and many journeyman revivalists can't be bothered to deepen their excavation for repertoire beyond the same old 1920s/'30s 78s. The originals of those, in any event, are readily available on reissue discs from County, Smithsonian Folkways,Yazoo, JSP, Arhoolie and other noble archival labels. Even major, mainstream labels are getting into the act, the most notable current example being Columbia's lavishly produced three-disc set of Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers' influential recordings.

Traynham digs deeper than most, however, pointedly eschewing the tried and true as much as he can. When he does venture into the t&t, he serves it up fresh in unusual or unexpected tunings, lyrics, and melodies that grab the attention and put a glow around the soul. Want proof? Go to "Man of Constant Sorrow," that eerie, 200-year-old lament that late in its life has been transformed, thanks to O Brother, into cliche and chuckle. Not, however, here; the lyrics are familiar, but Traynham's version harks back to a much earlier incarnation of the ballad, all graveyard wind and rattling bones.

There are more instrumentals than songs (sometimes done as duets with Jenny), though not by a significant margin, on this generous 26-cut offering. The instrumentals -- Jenny accompanies on guitar, and Andy Buckman joins on banjo in a few (separate) cases -- are if anything stronger than the sung pieces. I would be surprised if your favorite cut isn't "Walls of Jericho," a gem among gems and utterly unforgettable. In every regard Mac Traynham and label Copper Creek have done themselves -- and a magnificent musical tradition -- proud.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 4 June 2005