OUTSHINE THE SUN
The Foghorn Stringband
With a smattering of the rambunctiousness of Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose, some Freight Hoppers-style rhythmic thrust, a well-honed rusticity reminiscent of but less studied than early Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, plus the folksy textures of plainspoken male and female voices that bring to mind the spirited sorties of Sweet Sunny South’s Bill Powers and Shelley Gray, the venerable Foghorn Stringband (once a trio, now a quartet), out of Portland, Oregon, cuts loose with a vengeance on its seventh long player, Outshine the Sun. Nearly an hour of music is packed on this 21-tune CD, and when it’s all over you might find yourself reacting with a jolt when you realize you’ve actually been listening to a new CD instead of having stumbled onto an old-time radio station broadcasting from the Twilight Zone.
Foghorn Stringband, ‘Mining Camp Blues,’ at Pickathon 2012, August 3, 2012
Indeed, the Foghorn Stringband, though based in Portland, finds its voice in the southern precincts of America, not only the mountain hollers of the Deep South and Appalachia, but even down New Orleans way now. Its plaintive version of that timeless lament for a dead mother, “Sweeter Than The Flowers,” comes right out of Clinch Mountain country, in an arrangement hearkening back to the Stanley Brothers’ keening, backwoods version featuring the spare, evocative mandolin trilling of Caleb “Rowdy Chowdy” Klauder doubling down on the mournful atmosphere. Fiddler Stephen “Sammy” Lind and Klauder, again on mandolin, bring Hazel Dickens’s “Just a Few Old Memories” out of the West Virginia coal country of Dickens’s youth, with Nadine Landry channeling and voicing the pain of the song’s protagonist, a woman in denial about her lingering affection for a long-lost lover. More obscurely, the band plumbs the Mount Airy, NC/Galax, VA nexus for the keening mountain gospel of “Going Home,” a tune associated with the Pine Ridge Boys and its fine singing duo of Scotty and Patty East (son and daughter-in-law of group founder and fabulous fiddler Earnest East). Lind is spot-on in replicating Earnest’s distinctive long bowing fiddling that establishes the melody line before Klauder and Rebecca “Reed” Willms step into Scotty and Patty’s shoes with goosebump inducing authenticity in anticipating their heavenly homegoing. Heading back to Clinch Mountain territory, the quartet offers another homegoing gospel number, “Gospel Ship,” but kicks it up a few notches from the Carter Family’s comparatively staid version into a rousing celebration of salvation, fueled by Lind’s sprightly bowing.
Foghorn String Band, ‘Be King to a Man While He’s Down,’ at Pickathon 2012
As persuasive as the vocals are, the Foghorn Stringband members excel at their instruments; hence, several instrumentals showcase their tight communication, impressive techniques and spirited attacks. Lind leads the way with an ebullient fiddle outpouring on the bright, bouncy album closer, “Mama Blues,” based on the arrangement associated with Missouri fiddling ace Lonnie Robertson; a contemporary of Robertson’s, and also located in the Missouri Valley region, fiddler Uncle Bob Walters is the source of the delightful, high stepping “Salty River Reel” workout, with its captivating sing-song melody and a most impressive rhythm guitar of seemingly inexhaustible energy bolstering Lind’s breakneck pace. Returning to Virginia, and to the Blue Ridge Mountains, the band tears into John Ashby & the Free State Ramblers’ “Western Union,” with fiddle and mandolin cutting a wide instrumental swath and darting around each other as the track sprints to its conclusion.
All in an album’s work for the Foghorns—exploring America’s blue highways and coming back with songs that have and will endure, some ever-present in our collective memory, some orphaned by time but always primed for adoption by loving practitioners such as these. Outshine the sun? Could be an understatement.