This is a hell of a teaming! Both guys hail from the state of Virginia – Sam (whose own solo record Ain’t We Brothers was a highlight of last year) was born and raised in Wytheville, while Tyler (already a veteran of old-time Appalachian music at a tender age) is a native of Big Stone Gap. And yet this album is their first record together even tho’ they’ve both, jointly and severally, been playing the stages of the eastern US for some time now. Its 14 tracks are a healthy and reasonably accurate representation both of their musical tastes and predilections and the repertoire they perform on their live shows together – in which respect, the only absences from the record’s set-list are the purely instrumental items and the flatfoot dancing.
As I said above, what a team… On this album, Sam plays guitar on most tracks, fiddle on a couple and either mandolin or baritone guitar on the remaining two cuts, whereas Tyler plays banjo on the majority of the tracks and either autoharp or guitar on two apiece. Sam and Tyler’s instrumental chops are so plainly assured that it’s impossible to imagine a time when they didn’t play (hey, they must’ve learnt sometime!), while their close mountain harmonies (from the deep tradition of duet singing) are to die for. Each individual voice is distinctive; Sam’s is possibly the more rounded in tone whereas Tyler’s is chirpier and somehow more vulnerable-sounding, yet also with an unabashed genial charm (as on the traditional ditty Mister Rabbit).
Basically, Sam and Tyler play old time country music and newly written songs from the Appalachian mountains, taking their direct inspiration from, and paying homage to, the source singers and players – and yet, entirely avoiding the traps of tribute act and slavish imitation, they create their own brand of timeless music with stacks of imagination and abundant authenticity. Take the opener to their duo album, Stockyard Hill, a masterly song of genial nostalgia concocted by Sam out of the memories of his great-aunt “Sis” Corinne Thompson, which is followed by another highlight, Tyler’s own disarmingly open-hearted original When We Love.
The bulk of the album thereafter consists of freshly minted treatments of other folks’ songs; it’s a great selection, taking in the open-throated (and trip-up-metred) country-gospel of I Can’t Sit Down, three modern protest songs (Ola Belle Reed’s Tear Down The Fences, Mimi Fariña’s setting of James Oppenheim’s Bread And Roses and Tom T. Hall’s I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew), and a tune by the late Copper Creek fiddler Uncle Charlie Osborne given words by Rich Kirby. Kate Peters Sturgill’s reminiscence My Stone Mountain Home is done in approved Carter Family style with autoharp and guitar backing, as is Living With Memories (by Janette, daughter of A.P. and Sara), while Maybelle’s Lonesome Homesick Blues also makes an appearance on this disc. The gently touching Mama, Paint Me A Picture – penned by (the to me unknown) Anndrena Belcher – is another acquaintance worth making. Contrast is provided by a rollicking take on Tex Atchison’s hillbilly-rockabilly number Sleepy Eyed John (a 1961 hit for “honky tonk man” Johnny Horton) and the fun duet Well I Guess I Told You Off (a Carter Sisters speciality).
Sam and Tyler are both symbiotic and totally immersed in their music, and their affection for the tradition is clear, yet they’re audibly carrying on that tradition in their own special way and producing a contemporary equivalent that speaks to us all today.
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