They Called It Music

My headline is lifted from a song that the Gibson Brothers made the title track of their current album, as well as the final tune of their stylish set at Roots this week. Brother Eric wrote it (helping him earn Song and Songwriter of the Year awards from the IBMA). Brother Leigh told the backstory on our stage: A picker friend spent time jamming on old fiddle/banjo tunes with an elderly musician from the mountains. He asked the old man what “old-time” music was called back in, you know, old times? The reply: “Well son, they called it music.” And there’s your hook.

The punch line plays off the vicissitudes of genre, which we music scribes use (and sometimes invent) with a blend of enthusiasm and caution. When I say that The Foghorn String Band played ideal and satisfying “old-time” on our show, it refers to an identifiable tradition and the perfect push-and-pull drive that’s particular to that school. I mean no disrespect to any person old or young who maintains the equally true proposition that “it’s all music.”

But there’s another way to read the title of “They Called It Music” – one that springs to mind when I hear hot country music on FM radio. And this is about lost musical values and musicality. We in Roots World prefer music made before (or with judicious use of) the digital audio enhancement techniques that made commercial recordings louder, shinier and “perfect” since the 1990s. I had a conversation with several hit country producers this week about the subject, and they’re so deep in their arms race for the loudest, cleanest, thickest hottest record that they don’t have time or luxury to think about the qualities that seized their hearts when they were growing up in the analog era, such as air, quiet, dynamics and life. Those were exactly the values that made this week’s show so nourishing and fine.

A case in point was opening band Miss Tess and the Talkbacks. Our Brooklyn friends built their sound on sophisticated chords and attentive ensemble playing. Whether it was their Bonnie Raitt cover of “Give It Up” or the Tess original “I Never Thought I’d Be Lonely,” their stuff had swing, space and texture. On the latter, Miss Tess and Thomas Bryan Eaton played a long and carefully composed instrumental head together in close harmony on electric guitars, and it was spectacular. The closer, “People Come Here For Gold” became a favorite of ours on the band’s last visit. It twists and grooves with a locked-in feel only true musicians can achieve.

Emerging artist Cooper and The Jam lived up to the great press and buzz they’ve been getting in town. A few people thought this act had something to do with Peter Cooper, but the thing is Peter doesn’t dig “jam” bands and he’d probably be uncomfortable in this Cooper’s stage attire – a sheer, shimmering 1978 disco hottie purple dress with plunging neckline. (Though Peter, that would make great radio.) This Cooper is delightful and twinkly and impassioned, and her voice is more than powerful enough to command her seven-piece band. The sound mingles Motown and Stax with modern pop, blending sharp organ textures and horn stabs into a celebration. And my understanding is that Cooper is the songwriter too, and that’s impressive for such timeless sounding stuff. Next time we’ve got to get her in the chat room to find out more about her story, because she’s on the make.

The rest of the night was a string-laden acoustical affair, leading off with the thoroughly charming Roland White Band. Their bluegrass is distilled but easy-going, like a very high quality picking party. Opener “Alabama Jubilee” let fiddler Tyler Andal and banjo player Richard Bailey shine. Roland’s tremolo heavy mandolin sounded great on “High On A Mountain.” His vocal lines, paired with his wife Diane Bouska, had that elusive and beautiful high mountain quality, etched with wisdom and experience. They closed with the crowd-pleasers “Y’all Come” and “Orange Blossom Special” and please the crowd they did; the Roland White Band earned the first standing O of the night.

So I mentioned the Foghorn String Band before, and yes, in every way they scratched my old-time itch. I find it fascinating that the deeper I explore modern forms of music with elaborate harmonies and rhythms, the more old-time fiddle-driven dance music feels like nature’s home remedy for everything. And I’d think any sentient person would feel the calling of life in this music as rendered by Foghorn. Besides the fire and reel of their instrumental skills, the current quartet has a lot of vocal options. We heard Reeb Willms and Nadine Landry (guitar and bass respectively) sing tart, clear female harmonies on the Hazel & Alice song “Mining Camp Blues,” while fiddler Sammy Lind and mandolinist Caleb Klauder joined male voices on several wonderful songs. I couldn’t keep my seat during this stuff.

The bluegrass of the Gibson Brothers is a somewhat more refined and formal experience, and not just because they wear slick black suits and ties. The effortless mastery of their voices together is the result of 20 productive years. They offered the title track of their award-winning Help My Brother album of a few years ago and a really well-written song called “The Darker The Night” that Leigh delivered with magnetism. The guys are at work on a brother duets special project, which led to on-stage versions of “Bye Bye Love” from the Everlys and “Long Time Gone,” which the Everlys covered themselves on that must-own Songs Our Daddy Taught Us LP but which dates back to The York Brothers. (Thanks for the correction on this Phillip Wells via Facebook.)

Jim Lauderdale was of course quick with a kind word and a joke all night long. And he asked Peter and I if we’d like to take verses on the Loveless Jam. I’m better with a guitar in my hand than I mic but I gave my best Johnny Cash as we all co-operated on “Folsom Prison Blues” to celebrate the man’s birthday. Truth is I can’t sing that low. So besides my verse, I think you could call the night’s sweep from blues to bluegrass music, and very fine music at that.

Craig H.

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