I will admit it. At the end of each year, I attempt to come up with a “best-of” list of my own but struggle to identify even a handful. This is partly due to the fact that I am so bad about paying attention to the actual release dates of albums that I will invariably include several recordings that are older than I thought. This time, however, I had no trouble at all. 2012 proved to be a stellar year for releasing good music. Here are my picks for the best of the best, in no particular order:
O’ Be Joyful by Shovels & Rope (Dualtone Music Group). (AMERICANA) Shovels & Rope is Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, a husband-and-wife duo. Their website says they “sing harmony driven folk, rock and country songs using two old guitars, a kick drum, a snare, a few tambourines, harmonicas, and maybe a little keyboard sometimes.” There’s plenty of that on O’ Be Joyful, plus fiddles, banjos, and some wonderful, slightly off-kilter horns that take the genre to a new level (“Hail, Hail,” and “Tickin’ Bomb”). Clanky percussion is prominent on most of the tracks. Songs like “Carnival” demonstrate the duo can dazzle with slow-tempo ballads, too. It’s just quirky enough that it may not be for everyone, but if you like an old-timey country sound with a rockin’ edge to it, this album just might be right up your alley. ( Listen to samples here.)
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Bluegrass has been known for its virtuosity as much as its conservatism. As much as it can be thrilling with its rapid improvisations, audiences expect musicians to sound like the men who created the genre. Nonetheless, a few people have come along over the last decade who have tried to update the genre, incorporating the ethics of Alternative without abandoning Bluegrass’ sound. For the banjo, this means honoring the Scruggs sound.
Noam Pikelny would never be mistaken for an acolyte of Earl Scruggs. He did not come to the banjo from Bluegrass, through listening to the classics of Bill Monroe and his collaborators; rather it was the other way around. He learned from players of his native Chicago and listened to the “Newgrass” records of the 1970s, particularly Bela Fleck. Playing the banjo has instead brought him to the edges of Bluegrass, developing an intuitive approach to the instrument that has made him a rising star on the “Progressive Acoustic” scene as part of Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers.
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Photo by John Ramspott
Yes, at some point I referred to the Bluegrass banjo as the “hillbilly continuo.” I could think of no better way of explaining the spray of notes that rolls off the musician’s hands, propelling the music rapidly, but steadily, forward. Indeed, the comparison to the role of the basso continuo in Baroque music would seem to hold. My own prejudices about mountain culture perhaps deserved more scrutiny.
Give Me The Banjo, the documentary that just aired nationally on PBS and can be viewed online, provides more perspective. The banjo is at the middle of a nation’s long struggle to understand both its genius and its divisions. The product of The Banjo Project, a nine-year oral history, the documentary could not come at a more appropriate time, just as the instrument is enjoying a renaissance. Pricier and heavier than the ukulele, the other instrument of the moment, the banjo rings authenticity for a new cosmopolitan generation. It is genuine. It is restless. And as narrator Steve Martin has “banjoked” in the past, it is the sound of happiness.
The documentary begins, luckily for me, with the banjo’s role as a symbol of African-American culture. Giving only a casual explanation of the instrument’s genesis and its refinement by slaves, Sweeney‘s black-faced minstrel sets off a wider discussion about how the banjo was a caricature of African-Americans. No other part of the film better attempts to connect the instrument to social changes and a broader public consumed with understanding its identity. Indeed, the efforts of enthusiasts and scholars to balance the story of racism with the genius of American music makes the beginning sections somewhat explosive.
Sections on Gus Cannon, Charlie Poole, and Pete Seeger connect the banjo to the mobility of Americans in the early 20th century. Gus Cannon’s story is interwoven with interviews with the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons, who helps to make cannon’s jug band blues sound vibrant. This is the film at its most irresistible, feeling both erudite and homespun at the same time. By the time “Walk Right In” becomes a revival hit in the 1960s, it’s hard to see Cannon as anything other than a genius who wrested the black image from the minstrels.
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