In a Quiet Way, Quietly Moving

Terry Allen
Pharis & Jason Romero
Lula Records
The Williamson Brothers
Flatt Mountain Rec

The three records under consideration here share a certain sensibility, not in style but in approach and in effect. Quiet prevails here, both in the presentation of the music and in the temperament, if you will, these artists embrace. Although Terry Allen does go off on a certain “son of a bitch” in “Queenie’s Song,” emotional flareups such as his are the exception to the rule in this impressive trio of medium-cool long players. The steadiness of the performances throughout may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is certainly something uplifting about the artists restraining themselves just so, and by degrees, in order to be heard. Hailing from disparate precincts—Terry Allen from Texas; professional instrument makers Pharis and Jason Romero from British Columbia; the Williamson Brothers from North Carolina—the principals share a high level of craftsmanship and erudition, flash some wit along the way, and generally make a listener sit up and take notice by dint of their obvious commitment to making contact inexorably and incrementally from song to song, on through to the end of each album. In a distinctive but quiet way, each is quietly moving.

Terry Allen, ‘Queenie’s Song,’ from his new album, Bottom of the World

Terry Allen, a live version of his song ‘Hold On to the House,’ from his new album, Bottom of the World. He is accompanied by Bukka Allen on accordion, Richard Bowden on fiddle and Brain Standefer on cello. At Superfly’s Lone Star Music Emporium in San Marcos, TX, January 22, 2013.

Terry Allen, who shares with Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock the honor of being a Lubbock, Texas, sage, had not been heard from on record since 1999; then, all of a sudden, Bottom of the World surfaces and we remember his power to mesmerize with words and with the silences around those words. You can imagine his album’s 11 songs coming together over the course of a late night’s drive through the southwestern flatlands, as if he’d lit out from Lubbock, headed due west, and began engaging himself in existential interior monologues on back roads lit only by pale moonlight, and maybe he had the radio tuned to WWL and “The Road Gang”‘s Honest John Parker bumping around in the night, cueing up an obscure trucking song and warning of inclement weather across the state line, all the while promising he wouldn’t pass his cold along to any of his co-workers. It’s easy enough to imagine, on odysseys such as these, that the usual questions might not occur to you. Which may be why you concoct a delicately fingerpicked revenge fantasy aimed directly at the aforementioned SOB who shot your dog Queenie and by God is not going to get away with it. But as surely as heat rises, so does it subside, supplanted by a piercing, poignant query (“What the hell were you thinking/when you had Queenie in your sight?”) and the chill of a desolate burial day (“Queenie’s getting’ buried/it’s time to dig the hole/New Year’s Day in Santa Fe/broke mean and it broke cold”). You feel every bit of Allen’s pain as Bukka Allen lays on a funereal accordion hum and Lloyd Maines interjects steely, moaning slide sorties. And if you’re thinking about such things as Queenie’s conscience-less slayer, why, you might well get to wondering what such a person would do if he managed to make it past St. Peter’s pearly gates and found himself in a true paradise. Which is how you get to “Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven.” Framed by Maines’s beautiful pedal steel cries, you muse, “Do they dream of hell in heaven/are they restless with their reward/does God spend time with His angels/does he show them no regard?” Exit for a moment, and let Richard Bowden lay on the ache with an exquisite, tear-stained violin solo like Mark O’Connor at his most lyrical, and then return to wonder anew, “Do they wish they had been more sinful/then repented just before they died?” These important questions, born of solitude and perhaps sorrow as well, link directly to the ruminations couched in the eerie, shimmering ambiance of “Angels of the Wind,” which has the feel of a country church hymn in its solemn accordion and acoustic slide guitar backdrop but asks, “Is love just a dream of life’s better days/why do angels have wings/if they can’t fly away from the way that things are/to the way they should be/why do angels have wings if they never fly free?” Most certainly if you’re feeling such a deep sense of spiritual dislocation, if not outright alienation, you might compare your life to hiding in a movie where “you can’t tell/if you’re on the earth or in a diving bell/I’ve been in the dark all of my life/waitin’ for the Wake of the Red Witch.” Exactly why you’re fixated on a 1949 John Wayne film as a kind of metaphor for the faith you find elusive is unclear, but the song’s determinedly dark mood and your throaty delivery are enough to put a big chill into anyone. Hey, what’s ol’ Honest John got going on “The Road Gang” now? Damn, he’s good. Albuquerque, 50 miles. Giddy up go!

Pharis and Jason Romero, ‘Long Gone Out West Blues,’ at Folk Alliance International in Toronto, Feb. 2013. The song, written by Pharis, the title track of the husband-and-wife duo’s new album.

Pharis and Jason Romero, ‘I Want to Be Lucky, at Folk Alliance International in Toronto, Feb. 2013. The song is from the duo’s new album, Long Gone Out West Blues.

Well, maybe ol’ Honest John would take an interest in Pharis and Jason Romero’s Long Gone Out West Blues from a husband-and-wife duo hailing from the British Columbia woods and heretofore best known for the superb banjos Jason crafts in his workshop. That’s about to change. The Canadian Folk Music Awards honored the duo as Emerging Artist of the Year for its previous album, A Passing Glimpse. This new long player, keyed by Jason’s vibrant fingerpicking (guitar and banjo) and dominated by Pharis’s mellifluous, expressive singing (at times she sounds remarkably like Bearfoot’s Angela Oudean), is a bonafide coming of age effort. Pharis has a nice, unhurried touch with lyrics. She’s right on the money when it comes to advancing both the frustration and the hope battling within the narrator of her original, blues-tinged treatise “I Want to Be Lucky,” being about someone who has been decidedly unlucky and is quite fed up with such a state of affairs. She is positively inspirational on “Come On Home,” a plaintive appeal with overtly spiritual overtones sung to a wandering, weary soul in need of shelter that’s more than a roof over his head. With Jason’s sturdy harmony support, she sings her alluring invitation, “Come forward with your worldly weight/Come on home to no other’s place.” On the other hand, her “Lonely Home Blues,” backed by Jason’s sparkling fingerpicking, has a lighthearted, buoyant air despite it being a woman’s worries of her man ever returning to her. Even so, the woman in question is holding firm to her commitment even as she concedes: “I’ve got the lonely home blues on the top of the hill/I’m a-waiting on my baby and I can’t stand still/There ain’t no asking or debating if my baby’s coming still/got the lonely home blues on the top of the hill.” And hey, wouldn’t Honest John be thrilled with the duo’s richly harmonized, toe-tapping rendition of honky tonk pioneer Ted Daffan’s “Truck Driver’s Blues”? Or impressed by Jason’s assured lead vocal and Pharis’s plaintive harmonizing on a rustic treatment of “Waiting for the Evening Mail,” honoring a 1930 recording of “Waiting On the Evening Mail” by Riley Puckett? And how about Jason taking one of his famous banjos out for a solo instrumental run at “Sally Goodin’”? Although banjo greats such as Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe have gone to town on this evergreen, they’ve done so with considerable glide in their stride; Jason takes it at a more deliberate tempo, drawing out new shadings in the melody to make it sound, at times, like a spiritual, and at other junctures like an impressionistic interpretation. How fitting that the sensitive take on “Sally Goodin’,” the album’s penultimate tune, sets the table for an album closing benediction keyed by the Romeros’ earnest, soaring harmonies and Jason’s bright fingerpicking on Walter Scott’s country gospel hymn of salvation, “Across the Bridge.” Whereas Terry Allen’s characters have wandered far east of Eden and beyond heartbreak to seek solace in metaphysical inquisitions, the voices speaking to us on Jason and Pharis Romero’s Long Gone Way Out West Blues are not so defeated or burned by the trials of life as to be deterred from moving forward in their own time, full of faith and hope.

The Williamson Brothers of Logan County, West Virginia–fiddler Arnold and guitarist Ervin–are revered by folk, bluegrass and roots music historians for the six sides they cut for OKeh Records in the late 1920s, notable among these being their wild, furious version of “John Henry” (titled “Gonna Die With a Hammer In My Hand”), in an arrangement reflecting the influence of black string bands of the time and still one of the most riveting performances of that old warhorse ever recorded. (It merited inclusion on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.) Arnold and Ervin have long since left this mortal coil and receded into history’s shadowland. Tony and Gary Williamson, on the other hand, are increasingly gaining attention for their old-time bluegrass, folk and country, redolent as these are of the brothers’ roots in central North Carolina and reflecting that area’s rich musical history in its close, sweet harmonies, tight ensemble playing and affirmation of traditional values rooted in home, family and church. If the Williamson Brothers of West Virginia are in danger of being lost to history, the Williamson Brothers of North Carolina are making every effort to leave a lasting mark that will not allow the history of their era to be written without them being included in the narrative. At the same time, their career evinces their knowledge of and respect for history–their album My Rocky River Home is centered on songs inspired by the experiences of their great-grandfather, Noah Williamson, as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. Interestingly, in 1968 the brothers recorded a fine version of “John Henry” for an anthology titled Discovering Music Together.

Tony and Gary Williamson–the Williamson Brothers–in the studio recording ‘John Hardy’ for their new album, Bluegrass!

At a house concert at the Cook Shack, July 9, 2009, brothers Tony and Gary Williamson perform ‘My Darling Nellie Gray.’ Written by Benjamin Hanby in 1856, the song is the lament of a black male slave who has lost his woman to other slave owners, but vows to rejoin her one day in Heaven.

Simply titled Bluegrass!, the Williamsons’ new album has a beautiful spirit about it, and some of the finest banjo and mandolin picking in recent memory. It’s the least quiet of the three albums here, at least on the surface: their version of “John Hardy” breaks fast and hard out of the gate and sprints headlong and unceasingly to its conclusion after little more than three-and-a-half minutes, sparked by Don Wright’s incendiary fiddle and virtuoso Tony Williamson’s fleet-fingered mandolin solo, with Gary Williamson’s sturdy, personable vocal propelling the whole enterprise forward; the instrumental “Song for Jimmy Campbell” is a showcase for spirited soloing by fiddler Don Lewis along with tasty banjo commentary (by either Craig Smith or Don Wright) and some soulful mandolin picking by Tony ; and on “Lonesome Road Blues” the musicians are so eager to bust out with red-hot solos that they butt up against the lively vocals in making their entrances (Tony, memorably, cuts loose on mandolin with startling fury about halfway through). But in fact Bluegrass! has plenty of reflective moments to recommend it, and in Gary, especially, a lead singer blessed with a smooth, expressive voices capable of summoning fond memories of a gentler time and place than the present. “‘She Loves Another’ Waltz” (aka “Green Grow the Lilacs”) is aching and beautiful, with the singer’s equanimity in describing his lost love serving to enhance the profound despair seeping through the even-keeled vocal. The memory of a mother’s long vigil for her prodigal son could hardly be more effectively evoked or heartbreakingly articulated than it is on “Lamplighting Time in the Valley,” an unforgettable brother duet in the classic style that reminds us of the Williamsons’ connection to Ralph Stanley, whose influence is even more keenly felt on the brothers’ tender, poignant harmonizing on “I Miss My Dear Mother and Dad.” Add to this a close-harmonized gospel celebration on Charlie Monroe’s “When the Angels Carry Me Home” (featuring another dazzling Don Lewis fiddle solo) and a tight, driving rendition of “The Wreck of the Old 97”–which immediately takes its place among the best versions extant of this beloved traditional number–and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. For the traditional-minded listener, the Williamson Brothers’ Bluegrass! earns its exclamation mark and then some.

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