Will Carter, the founder of Clifftop, perhaps the premiere old-time festival in the world, has said that old-time music is about “that tradition of participating in the art. It’s not about a stage.” Of course, there is a stage at Clifftop, though, true to the concept, it’s the participation that people go for—dozens of circles of people playing banjos, fiddles, guitars, dulcimers, basses, and joining in a style of music that we associate most with rural Appalachia.
This album is part of that tradition. Like so many old-time recordings, Marshall and Jones have included the keys and the banjo tunings within the liner notes. If a capo is needed, they note that too. I love seeing that. Even if you don’t play a note, it signals a lot of things. It’s an indication that this isn’t music to be precious about, or perched in front of, but to enter into. It also hints at that larger community of players, and indeed there are perhaps more out there than you might imagine. (On a normal year, Clifftop gathers in excess of 4000 people, an astonishing percentage of them banjo players.)
As you’d expect, there are some old tunes on this album, ones that have been passed hand to hand from on player to another. Jones learned “Mr. Barwick’s” Tom Jackson, who in turn learned it from Coleman Barwick, Mr. Barwick himself. There are a few vocal tracks too—Hank Williams, “Cause My Sweet Love Ain’t Around,” and “Southern Special” from the Tennessee Ramblers—though they don’t announce themselves, and aren’t the most famous songs that we might know from those performers. Instead, everything feels a piece, as if you’re sitting with two people in their home as they tell a story and play a tune or tune. It’s hard to know, just from listening, which tunes are the new ones and which are the old.
Which, of course, is what it’s all about. In other genres, the goal is to be new, perhaps shocking, and to stick your head above the crowd. In Marshall’s world, it’s the opposite, to blend in, and that’s true of the writing as well. “I’ve really been striving to write tunes in a traditional way,” says Erynn Marshall in interview in 2014. “I didn’t want my tunes to stick out glaringly from tradition. … It’s kind of like trying to invent new recipes. If you’re a passionate cook and you want to make a new type of bread that no one’s had before, you can make some little changes, some special something that will make it unique and make it you. But you can’t change the basic ingredients too much, or it will turn in to pancakes or muffins, or something completely different. … keeping the main key elements of tradition there, and then merging it into something that is me.”
In all, though, it’s the lens that old-time music places on the world that really distinguishes the work. There is an attention to detail, as in the title song, and finding beauty in ordinary things and everyday experiences. This recording is very much a moment in a much larger experience of the world. And, while we listen, we become part of that world, too.
For Penguin Eggs, Summer/Autumn Double Issue 2020