“My people perish for a lack of vision.”
That cannot be said of Michael Holland. With the release of his second solo album Tomorrows American Treasures, Holland maintains his extraordinary focus, showing his astute respect for traditional American music while varnishing it with enough trippy nuance to keep it vital.
The opening track unveils this engaging sub-universe: “Crystal Meth Freak from California”, is a jam grass piece with stringed instruments plucking along as smoothly as a new Honda engine; but at the 2:13 mark we are treated to a spacey synthesizer solo. And dang if it doesn’t fit just perfectly. The same can be said for the welcomed intrusion of Holland’s signature organ work on other tracks, giving his tunes a warm undercurrent that buoys the banjos and fiddles. He even manages to create a new sub-genre—call it “reggae grass”—with “Nobody Loves Me, Nobody Cares”.
But this isn’t the smug tomfoolery that often crops up in other attempts to reinvent bluegrass for the masses. In fact, it is a mistake to call Treasures a straight bluegrass album. Rather, Holland melds it into other elements with same loving care that he has shown in the past for the blues. Whether it’s Clarksdale or Clarksville, he draws from their deep springs without merely aping either.
A survey of the album’s titles and themes is revealing. In the old days, for example, singers in southern Appalachia consoled themselves over the loss of loved ones by asserting that one day they would reunite “on that distant shore”. Holland transforms that metaphor into “Mountains of the Moon”, a gorgeous track that aches like a lonely coyote. The traditional “Pretty Polly” was among the major murder ballads of the Anglo-American catalog. The original story involved a young (possibly pregnant) maiden enticed to ride into the woods with her lover who stabs her and leaves her in a shallow grave. Holland’s “Oh Pretty Polly” contains a similar invitation, but here it is to escape the oppression of religious ritual and find the divine in a road adventure. The “Old Slewfoot” of yesteryear (the devil, or a vicious bear) is reconstituted as “King Heartache” (“he’ll claw out your eyes”).
“Since I Lay My Burden Down”, borrows its title from a line in the old African-American spiritual “Glory, Glory Hallelujah”. Here, the mystical unburdening comes not through contrition and penance, but in finding that person upon whom one’s love can rest:
I’m sitting with a bird in my hand
Since I lay my burden down
And I’m watching for every grain of sand Since I lay my burden down
This piece dissolves the fictitious boundary between the sacred and profane and revels in the spirituality of the mundane. This has been Holland’s special gift, dating back to his days with Jennyanykind. His love songs have always been charged with a sense of immanence. That this track captures him in a live gig, alone with his guitar, makes the message more evocative.
But unlike his previous solo album Bootlegger’s Dreams (2003) Holland is not alone here. He surrounds himself with Big Fat Gap, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based bluegrass band named for one of the most remote and obscure places in eastern United States (located in the Joyce Kilmer backcountry of the North Carolina/Tennessee border). Big Fat Gap is described thusly: “A bluegrass band that has no plans to take Nashville by storm. Some of them even have day jobs. They just like to pick, they like each other, and it shows.”
Don’t you just love that? If memory serves me correctly, Holland also has a day job, which creates not only a perfect match but gives that requisite sense of balance between day and night, light and dark. These guys know something about everyday reality that gets lost too easily with many musicians. After a recent visit to a local club to catch another band, a buddy of mine opined to another, “wouldn’t be great to quit our jobs and start playing like this?” Not for me. This set-up between Michael Holland and Big Fat Gap embodies the combination of transcendence and concrete reality that characterized all the great old-time musicians. The most enduring music has come down to us, after all, from people who worked all day on farms and in factories, then played at night.
Big Fat Gap is a remarkably unobtrusive bluegrass band. There are no ostentatious, look-at-me solos. But the playing is deft and complimentary, these guys paying attention to the lyrics. Take “Crystal Meth Freak” for example: when Holland sings “when you pick up the phone does it speak to you?” Bobby Britt plays a fiddle lick that taunts and mocks the drug dealer. On the supine “Lazy Summer Day” Jamie Dawson’s mandolin answers every line with the earthy “bark” that Bill Monroe always coaxed out of his instrument. This happy cadre then rambles through the stomping “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring”, a five-plus-minute jam that contains a simple but pithy exhortation to those dispossessed and disenfranchised: “Tonight we’re sleeping under the bridges But who knows what tomorrow may bring.”
Ryan Cavanaugh’s banjo arises from the mix like sunlight shimmering on the asphalt. It’s yet another to be added to Holland’s knapsack of tunes well-suited for the road. With a well-rounded group of musicians following Michael Holland’s vision, Tomorrows American Treasures is a reminder that the music of this country’s by-ways will never perish.