Eric Brace & Karl Straub
Red Beet Records
So many things about Hangtown Dancehall are truly wondrous it’s hard to know where to begin praising it. How about at the beginning, then? On the CD in question that would be with the liner notes by Eric Brace, whose great, long gestating idea this was. Brace, who on his own and with singer-songwriter partner Peter Cooper, keeps making wonderful, memorable music that stirs the soul and touches places in the heart where we all live, turns out to be a native of Placerville, California. Some may feel this is not so remarkable a fact, but truth be told, Placerville has an infamous history Brace has drawn on in creating what he calls a “folk-opera.”
On January 24, 1848 gold was discovered in Colona, California, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills of north-central California. When word got out about the shiny nugget one James Marshall had stumbled upon in the American River, what there was of America went crazy. The Gold Rush was on, and over the next six years some 300,000 people journeyed to California from points near and far on the continent, on foot, on horseback, by wagon train, by boat (“around the Horn or through Panama,” Brace writes), probably by mule as well. Anyone who’s seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre knows what gold can do to prospectors with visions of the good life dancing in their heads; imagine hundreds of thousands in pursuit of the same dream, by any means necessary, you might say. Many of these prospectors descended on the nearby town of Dry Diggin’s (named for the cartloads of dry soil miners would cart to running water to separate the gold from the soil). By 1949 Dry Diggin’s had become known as Hangtown in recognition of the preferred type of harsh justice often meted out to those who engaged in various forms of skullduggery (and got caught at it) in pursuit of riches. In 1850 the temperance league and a few local churches suggested a less forbidding name be adopted, a process that took four years but ultimately gave us Placerville, so named for, as Brace says, “placer deposits, ore from an open vein found in riverbeds and lakes.” Upon its incorporation in 1854, Placerville was California’s third largest town. Today’s Placerville is a historic community with many remnants of the gold rush days remaining and notable also for being within spitting distance of the Apple Hill wine country area. But for purposes of this conversation, Placerville is more important as the birthplace of Eric Brace, who writes that he grew up “not ten miles from where gold was found.”
‘El Dorado Two-Step,’ the final tune from Hangtown Dancehall, a folk-opera by Eric Brace and Karl Straub. Tim O’Brien (lead vocal; Eric Brace (backing vocal); Andy Reiss (acoustic and electric guitars); Buddy Spicher (violin); Jen Gunderman (piano, accordion); Kevin Cordt (trumpet); Kurt Storey (viola); Pat McInerney (drums); Dave Roe (bass); Peter Cooper (backing vocals).
As a youth in Placerville, young Eric found his imagination fired by the colorful, lusty, poignant, often tragic Gold Rush tales he heard over the years (his family moved from Placerville when Brace was seven, but its colorful history had long since been embedded in his memory). A decade or so ago, feeling stifled creatively and “uninspired by my day to day thoughts and the songs that were springing out of them,” as he told The East Nasvhillian.com, Brace began writing a songs about the ordeal of chasing the Hangtown dream. In 1999, during the 150th anniversary of the ‘49ers, he filed a piece about his hometown with the Washington Post, for which he also served as a music critic at the time. “Working on that story was an excuse to finally study up on what really happened back then, the hows and whys, and I became obsessed with the Gold Rush. To me it’s the defining moment in American history, the moment when we threw out the work ethic and embraced the get-rich-quick schemes that still define our economic hopes. It was when we as a nation made any excuse we could to take whatever land we wanted, and tough luck for anyone who got in our way.
“It laid the groundwork for our so-called ‘Manifest Destiny;’ it led to the mass destruction of all indigenous people in California; it provided us an excuse to enact the most racist and exclusionist laws in the name of a made-up greater good. But it also provided the impetus to create the transcontinental railroad, the telegraph, blue jeans (Levi-Strauss), canned ham (Armour), better wagon suspension (Studebaker). It sparked such a movement of men and goods that the world was never the same after the ’49ers.”
FEATURED TRACK: ‘Pretty Girl in Missouri,’ an Eric Brace rewrite of his song ‘See What Love Can Do’ as recorded by the legendary Skylighters, retooled to fit the storyline of Hangtown Dancehall, with Mike Auldridge reprising his dobro solo from the Skylighters’ version. Lead vocal: Eric Brace.
The first song to flow from Brace’s pen was about the aforementioned James Marshall, an infamous Hangtown prospector from Hopewell, NJ, who staked numerous claims but only ever struck a miniscule amount of gold but enough on that fateful day in 1848 to spark a national mania and set in motion the cataclysmic events Brace describes above. Other prospectors, who figured if Marshall discovered gold once he could surely duplicate his feat, as if he had a nose for the stuff, sought him out as something of an oracle.
On Hangtown Dancehall the task of manifesting James Marshall in song falls to weary-voiced Darrell Scott, on the song “King Midas,” co-written by Brace and his chief Hangtown collaborator Karl Straub, who cuts a formidable figure himself as a singer and writer on this outing. It’s a mesmerizing entrance Marshall makes, with Scott sounding bone-tired as Casey Driessen matches his fatigue-laden delivery with a winsome fiddle line as Brace strums a sturdy acoustic guitar and Pat McInerney’s funereal percussion thumps ominously under it all. His is a tense, relentless testimony, verging on anger at times, but with near-palpable disgust for what he’s become and, more important, for what’s about to befall those who seek out his so-called wisdom. In one of the many fine, telling lyrics Brace and Straub offer on the album, Marshall/Scott issues an emphatic warning: “If it’s shining and calling you/Don’t pick it up/Leave it lying there and it might be gold/If it is, then the price you will learn/Where a man can be bought and sold.”
FEATURED TRACK: ‘King Midas,’ with Darrell Scott in his role as James Marshall. Casey Driessen on violin.
In “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” a song from his youth but dating back to the 1850s, Brace found a touchstone for the larger story he wanted to tell. In 14 verses songwriter John A. Stone told the story of lovers Betsy and Ike who set out across country from Pike County, Missouri, braving the elements and attacks by “injuns”; Betsy resists the advances of Brigham Young in Salt Lake and flees; until finally, with almost nothing left of their worldly possessions, they arrive at “old Placerville,” where Ike says to Betsy, “Sweet Betsy, my darling, we’ve got to Hangtown.” The Pike Country couple then marries, and in short order Ike files for divorce, with a “well-satisfied” Betsy kissing him off with “Goodbye, you big lummox, I’m glad you backed out!”
That was enough to set Brace to wondering what happened next in Betsy and Ike’s story and “the songs started coming easily then, once I had a story outlined in my head.” At which point he asked Straub to write an overture, a three-minute instrumental, only to have Straub return to him with “several stunning songs and adding a sophistication to the music that I could not have brought.”
FEATURED TRACK: ‘Hangtown Fry,’ written by Karl Straub, with Straub on lead vocal, acoustic and electric guitars; Eric Brace, lead and backing vocals; Jen Gunderman, piano; Kevin Cordt, trumpet.
So here it is, Hangtown Dancehall, “tales of love and gold, life and death, food and whiskey,” the product of some ten years’ incubation (during which time Brace was on the road and recording with his formidable roots band Last Train Home; moved to Nashville; got married; launched the Red Beet label; and formed the abovementioned acclaimed duo with Peter Cooper. Add to this a 2006 project with a couple of his Last Train Home mates [Jim Gray and Martin Lynds] along with bluegrass legends Mike Auldridge [Seldom Scene, Chesapeake, et al.] and Jimmy Gaudreau [Country Gentlemen, Tony Rice Unit, et al.] in a group called The Skylighters, whose one album [now available at the Red Beet website] was nothing less than monumental). Assembled here is a large, impressive cast, with the main roles being played by Kelly Willis (Betsy), Brace (as Ike), Straub, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Wesley Stace, Jason Ringenberg (appropriately cast as Preacher Magee) and Andrea Zonn. Peter Cooper is here on backing vocals, and additional instrumental support is added by Mike Auldridge (dobro), Jen Gunderman (accordion, pump organ, piano), Kevin Cordt (trumpet), Kurt Storey (viola), Dave Roe (bass), Buddy Spicher (violin), Pat McInerney (drums, percussion), Casey Driessen (violin), Scott McKnight (banjo), Fats Kaplin (violin, mandolin), David Henry (strings), Jared Bartlett (backing vocals), in addition to Brace and Straub singing and playing guitars and O’Brien playing pretty much every other stringed instrument under the sun, as is his wont. The sound of the whole affair evokes the time in which the songs are set but doesn’t sound dated, due in part to the nuanced arrangements deploying Gunderman’s accordion and various fiddlers for atmospheric effects (Spicher’s western swing-style strains on the lively “Gone to California,” for example); in part to the variety of roots styles to be found among the folk-opera’s 25 numbers; and most of all to the vocalists’ contemporary voices—Tim O’Brien’s singing has a certain rhythm in its phrasing, and he doesn’t try to alter it in realizing the ambitious character of Jeremiah Jenkins; similarly, the heft and soul in Brace’s delivery is in full flower; and whenever Straub enters the fray vocally, his reedy tenor, wry attitude and blues-tinged attack might have you thinking he’s channeling Roger Miller at times.
FEATURED TRACK: ‘Smile and a Little Skin,’ written by Karl Straub. Kelly Willis, lead vocal; Casey Driessen, violin; Jen Gunderman, piano.
If the album belongs to any one singer, it belongs to Kelly Willis, who will need to keep a higher profile after this. Her Betsy first appears in a tense dialogue with Brace’s jealous Ike in “If You Don’t Know Me,” a mild stomp of an interlude in which Betsy humorously counters Ike’s concerns about his gal’s dancefloor flirtations upon their arrival in Hangtown until she finally has had enough and dismisses him with a severe “If you don’t know you’re the man for me/Then maybe, just maybe, you’re not!” Ike storms off to an adventure on his own, while Betsy joins up with Jeremiah Jenkins’s band, going from camp to camp entertaining the miners and in her mind plotting a life without Ike. The softly swaying Straub tune “Smile and a Little Skin” is beautifully delivered by Ms. Willis with both a bright lilt and a telling patina of sadness that lets the listener know that however much she’s adapted to her new circumstances, something is missing: “Down, up, and down/Kicking heels up and knees up and/Now to my left, and then now to my right/And around and around/When it’s over I wake up alone/Pick out the clothes I’ll be dancing in/With a lot of smile and a little skin,” with the key moment coming in the way she lowers her voice on “I wake up alone,” a little wrinkle in her phrasing that speaks volumes about where her heart’s at. Later, when she’s been told, mistakenly, that Ike died pursuing a mining claim, Betsy visit Ike’s presumed resting place and delivers a heart wrenching soliloquy, reflecting on her and Ike’s life together, passing along the latest news from home and vowing fidelity to him in the years ahead. Singing in a plaintive, aching voice just short of a cry, Ms. Willis brings the sorrowful ballad home in memorable fashion, its poignancy heightened by the elegiac strains of Casey Driessen’s fiddling. As it happens, reports of Ike’s death have ben exaggerated, and towards the end of the story he is reunited with his beloved Betsy in “So Many Miles,” another dialogue a la “If You Don’t Know Me,” but with affection and reconciliation supplanting the latter’s jealousy and spite—Brace’s Ike and Willis’s Betsy are deeply in love and let the world be damned, and the two trade the warmest of sentiments until Betsy repeats, twice, “Pike County seems so far away” and Ike comforts her with “the past is gone, there’s just today…and I have missed you in so many ways” in a setting made all the more heart tugging by David Henry’s soothing strings and Kevin Cordt’s evocative, soft trumpet lines.
FEATURED TRACK: ‘So Many Miles,” written by Eric Brace. Kelly Willlis and Eric Brace, lead vocals; Fats Kaplin, violin and pedal steel; Jen Gunderman, piano, accordion; Kevin Cordt, trumpet; David Henry, strings.
In its own way Ms. Willis’s appearance is a tour de force, but it in no way diminishes the uniformly stellar vocals from Straub, Brace, Darrell Scott, the haunting Andrea Zonn, O’Brien and most certainly the country sermonizing of Jason Ringenberg in his Preacher Magee role delivering a eulogy to a fallen miner in “Life Story (With Umbrellas).” Sounding like a chicken-fried Mack Davis, Ringenberg slyly eats up his role, especially the lyric in which he suggests the dead man’s pockets be checked for gold that might be put to better use paying for new windows in the church “and a pile of new bibles wouldn’t hurt.” And there’s a special treat for Skylighters fans on the second track, Brace’s “Pretty Girl in Missouri.” This is nothing less than a slight rewrite of “See What Love Can Do,” the first track on the Skylighters’ album, with the mise-en-scene changed from Kentucky to Missouri and some slight tweaks made to the lyrics, while keeping the basic story intact: the girl’s dad refuses to let her marry the beau of her choice; the beau guns down the dad; the couple runs off together (in this case to California instead of to Knoxville); and the father’s grave stands as evidence of “what love can do.” Mike Auldridge (sadly, now deceased) is even on board for a dobro solo, this one understandably more temperate, befitting the track’s mood, than the electrifying salvo he unleashed on the Skylighters’ version (which also featured a hard charging mandolin solo by Jimmy Gaudreau every bit as breathtaking as Auldridge’s dobro solo; this new iteration forsakes the mandolin).
FEATURED TRACK: ‘Life Story (With Umbrellas),’ written by Karl Straub. Jason Ringenberg, lead vocal; Karl Straub, lead vocal, acoustic and electric guitars; Peter Cooper, backing vocals; Kevin Cordt, trumpet; David Henry, strings; Dave Roe, bass, Pat McInerney, drums.
The liner booklet reproduces all the song lyrics and also provides between-songs exposition so the listener can follow the storyline all the way through to the production’s spirited closing celebration, “El Dorado Farewell,” sparked by O’Brien’s lively vocal, Andy Reiss’s cool electric guitar punctuations and Kevin Cordt’s happy—what better way to describe it? —trumpet sorties. Hangtown Dancehall has been realized as a stage production, for one night in Nashville, but Brace admits the logistics of getting the original cast together is a near- impossible task. Nevertheless, he told artsnash.com he is pursuing the idea of developing it into “a stageable musical with dialogue and an acting cast…have it be a standalone musical that Karl and I created.” A marvelous thing that would be, and a man who has the patience to see his idea through a decade of development, never giving up on it even as his path took him down other routes, might well prove too tenacious to be denied having his dream realized in full. In the meantime, Hangtown Dancehall on CD is one glorious experience, with some the planet’s most gifted musicians giving it their best in service to a timeless message worth repeating anew: love conquers all, is always worth more than gold and provides a more fulfilling return on the investment of time and effort it takes to find the real thing.
And when you’re in Placerville, say a prayer for Betsy and Ike.