Metroland Christmas Gift Issue - 2004
CDs - Folk, Blues Bluegrass, and Celtic Music
Reviewed by Glenn Weiser  

Since 1997 I've written an annual roundup of CD holiday gift recommendations of folk, blues, bluegrass, and Celtic music for Metroland. Even though these releases are now longer new, they are still noteworthy - G.W.
The roots music of the British Isles and North America remains a perennial wellspring of soul-soothing melody. If you need holiday gift ideas for folk, blues, bluegrass or Celtic music CDs, rest assured that this fabulous font has poured out music this year as good as any in recent times. Here are my suggestions for 2004 releases in these genres.

Guitarist extraordinaire Jerry Garcia had played folk, bluegrass and jug-band music before beginning his 30-year tenure with the Grateful Dead in 1965. During the last five years of Garcia’s life, mandolin maestro David Grisman recorded more than 40 acoustic sessions with him encompassing folk, blues, county music, bluegrass and other styles. Almost a decade after Garcia’s passing in 1995, Grisman has issued what he says may be the final set of these collaborations. Folkies will love Been All Around This World (Acoustic Disc), 12 tasty tracks compiled from these sessions. Backed by members of the David Grisman Quintet, the two cover traditional folk material along with songs by country crooners Merle Travis, Jimmy Rodgers, and George Jones. Garcia’s vocals occasionally sound frayed, but his singing is still rich with emotion and his guitar playing stunning. Grisman is in his usual fine form as well.

Another worthy folk release is The Unbroken Circle (Dualtone), a tribute to the Carter Family by contemporary rock, folk and country stars. From 1927 to 1943, A.P. Carter, his wife Sarah, and her cousin Maybelle Carter collected and recorded more than 300 folk, gospel and 19th-century parlor songs, many of which became classics. On these 15 tracks, artists as diverse as Cheryl Crow, George Jones, Willie Nelson, John Prine, and Johnny Cash pay homage to the groundbreaking Virginia trio.

A great pick for blues fans is harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite’s new offering, Sanctuary (Real World). The four-time Grammy nominee has hewed close to Chicago blues for most of his 37-year career, but his recent releases have crossed over into other styles, including country, jazz and Tejano. Although the CD has plenty of blues, guest artists the Blind Boys of Alabama lighten the mood with gospel-tinged harmonies on two of the 12 tracks. Slide guitarist Ben Harper also joins Musselwhite’s backing lineup of Charlie Sexton on guitar, Jared Michael Nickerson on bass, and Michael Jerome on drums for a pair of songs, one of which he wrote. But the laurels here go to Musselwhite’s harmonica, which proves the virtuoso is still at the top of his game.

For a nonpareil introduction to the blues, try the 2-CD anthology The Best Of Southern Blues (Fuel 2000). This 24-track collection features both prewar solo acoustic and postwar electric band cuts, including classics by Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, Arthur Crudup, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, and Ike Turner.

Harley “Red” Allen (1930-1993) was one the greatest yet most overlooked bluegrass singers. Rebel Records has issued two discs of Allen’s 60’s recordings, Keep On Going: The Rebel and Melodeon Recordings, and Lonesome and Blue: The Complete County Recordings, which hopefully will go some ways toward establishing the Kentuckian’s rightful place in the “high and lonesome” pantheon. The combined 48 tracks capture bluegrass at its best and include several previously unreleased cuts. Among the featured sidemen are mandolinists Frank Wakefield and a young David Grisman, fiddlers Richard Green and Scotty Stoneman, banjoist Bill Emerson, and double bassist Jerry McCoury.

Another superb bluegrass offering, You Were There for Me (Rounder), brings singer-songwriter Peter Rowan and guitar champ Tony Rice together for the first time. Rowan is a Bill Monroe alumnus who penned “Panama Red” for the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Tony Rice is one of those amazing pickers who makes guitarists want to burn their axes in despair. Rowan, who wrote or co-wrote all 10 tracks on the CD, and Rice are joined by Bryn Bright and Tony Garnier on double bass, Billy Bright on mandolin, Larry Atamanuik on drums (one track only) and Robert Emery on harmony vocals.

Mastering the swift dance tunes and plaintive slow airs of Celtic music requires years of solitary practice. Up in the Air (Schanachie) is a unique concept album in which the individual members of the Irish band Danu demonstrate their hard-earned skill by playing dazzling solos on their respective instruments. Of the 18 tracks, only two are songs—one unaccompanied and one backed only by the Irish drum—and the rest are instrumental pieces. The musicians are accordionist Benny McCarthy, Muireann NicAmhlaoibh on vocals and whistle, Tom Doorley on flute, guitarist Donal Clancy, Donnchadh Gough on bodhran and Uilleann pipes, fiddler Oisin McAuley, and Eamonn Doorley on bouzouki.

Also recommended for Celtic music lovers is traditional Irish singer Sean Doyle’s debut album, The Light and the Half-Light (Compass). Doyle is the father of John Doyle, who played guitar for the traditional bands Solas and Chanting House. The younger Doyle appears on this straight-ahead traditional CD on bouzouki and mandolin as well as guitar along with fiddler Liz Carroll, Appalachian old-timey banjoist and double bassist Dirk Powell, and others.

Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2004 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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