Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, and Celtic CDs
Metroland Holiday Gift Guide-12/10/09
By Glenn Weiser

Folk, Blues, Bluegrass and Celtic CDs

2009 has seen many worthy offerings of folk, blues, bluegrass, and Celtic music. In addition to valuable reissues, historic recordings from past masters, and new releases from contemporary artists, some notable anthologies have also come along. I have some fine CDs for you that would make wonderful gifts for fans of these genres.

Last month, Bill Monroe alumnus Del McCoury came to the Egg and put on a stellar show of old-school bluegrass. He brought along copies of his daisy-fresh disc Family Circle (McCoury Music), which, after his 2006 gospel album Promised Land, marks a return to the high and lonesome sound. The new CD shows that the McCoury band, which includes his two sons, Ronny on mandolin and Robbie on banjo (hence the CD’s title), just keeps getting better, and some are calling this latest effort his best yet.

With his killer chops on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and tenor vocals, Ricky Skaggs is one the most gifted and versatile musicians in bluegrass today. In remembrance of his late father Hobart, an old-time performer, Skaggs multitracked himself for a one-man recording, Solo: Songs My Dad Loved (Skaggs Family). Although the track list of gospel and bluegrass standards holds few surprises, you might not have known that the younger Skaggs also plays piano, bass, Dobro and banjo, and even handles percussion chores. Skaggs also plays at generally slower tempos here than the manic prestos often heard in bluegrass.

A good bet for a blues fan is Charlie Musselwhite’s latest album, Rough Dried: Live at the Triple Door (Henrietta). Although not an overwhelming singer, Musselwhite is perhaps the greatest living blues harp player, and his live performances, such as this one at a leading Seattle venue, are consistently strong. As well as blues shuffles and slow numbers from his last 20 years of recorded output, Musselwhite mixes in jazzy and Latin sounds.

Although “Sittin’ on Top of the World” has been recorded by everyone from the Grateful Dead to Bill Monroe to Howlin’ Wolf, few blues aficionados know it was first recorded in 1929 by the Memphis blues ensemble the Mississippi Sheiks (after Rudolph Valentino, if you weren’t a sheik you weren’t chic). In A Tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks—Things About Comin’ My Way (Black Hen Music), artists from diverse genres salute the Sheiks. Among the contributors are jazz chanteuse Madeline Peyroux and guitarist Bill Frisell, the old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, bluesman John Hammond Jr., and singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.

Another good compilation, this time of folk music, is The Village (429), celebrating the era from the late 1950s through the early 60s when the folk scene revolved on an axis with poles in the coffeehouses of Harvard Square and Greenwich Village. The hootenanny brings together artists such as the Cowboy Junkies, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Hornsby, John Oates, Lucinda Williams and Los Lobos to cover the music of Bob Dylan, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Eric Andersen, Harry Belafonte, Tim Buckley and others. The covers of acoustic originals by electric bands would have been branded as heresy at the time, but now it’s all good.

For hardcore folkies, there is Pete Seeger’s 2-disc set, Live in ’65 (Appleseed), a previously unreleased live performance by the now iconic nonagenarian at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall when he was in his musical prime. Playing guitar and banjo, Seeger delivers his signature protest anthems, traditional ballads, and song settings of verse ranging from Russian poetry to the Old Testament.

Celtic music lovers will welcome two recent reissues, the first being the plainly titled 1997 Celtophile CD Jigs and Reels: The Dance Music of Ireland (Compass). This all-instrumental collection offers the typically fast, florid Irish tunes performed on fiddle, wooden flute, button accordion, and Uillean pipes by some of Celtdom’s best musicians, including Kevin Burke, Eileen Ivers, Mick Moloney, Billy McComisky, Jerry O’Sullivan, and Martin Hayes.

As for vocal music, Greentrax has reissued Scottish singer Jean Redpath’s 1986 Rounder disc Will Ye No Come Back Again? (The Songs of Lady Nairn). Here Redpath, accompanying herself on guitar and also backed by Abbey Newton on cello and David Gusakov on fiddle, performs the songs of Carolina Oliphant, the Baroness Nairne (1766-1845), a prolific, melodic composer in the Scottish tradition who, like her contemporary Jane Austen, sought to remain anonymous as the creatrix of her works. Redpath delivers Naire’s airs in her usual clear, pure voice.

—Glenn Weiser

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2009 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.