[28 February 2014]
Here’s the story behind Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania. Whether it’s true or not is entirely up to you.
Over a hundred years ago, seems Pennsylvanian folklorist Henry Shoemaker gathered a mighty collection of American song lyrics. Somehow, hipster folkies David Bielanko and Christine Smith of Marah got their hands on the collection, and, in true Billy Bragg-style, wrote some brand new music to fit some of the lyrics, thus resurrecting some long-lost bits of Americana.
And if that ain’t down-home enough, they recorded this music live into one microphone in a homemade studio in an old freakin’ church, leaving the doors open so curious neighbors could poke in their heads and even clap along. Among the musicians are eight-year-old fiddle/banjoist/singer Gus Tritsch, and who cares who else because holy crap, they have an eight-year-old fiddle player.
It all sounds rather urban-lengendy, but I have no reason to believe this isn’t a true story, and not (just) a stunt, because Marah’s Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania is more than just a tongue-twister; it’s a genuine charmer that feels about as authentic as it gets these days, even as it takes the music to places that good Mr. Shoemaker dared not imagine. Best yet, the songs feel at home, comfortable, and convincing (there’s none of Mermaid Avenue’s forced awkwardness). It’s pretty much all sung in two-part harmony, with Smith’s pretty alto making a nice counterpoint to Bielanko’s dustier baritone, but it’s loaded with more surprises than a Yankee rooster in a French henhouse. (Or something. I’m no good with folksy metaphors – then again, I haven’t read Shoemaker’s collection.)
Marah, or at least Bielanko and Smith, are certainly qualified to take on this sort of project. Back in the ‘90s, they were on the verge of being Philly’s Next Big Thing – their earthy brand of country rock recalled (and impressed) Steve Earle and even Springsteen, and their live shows were damn near legendary. But a shift to New York led to a bad breakup, and the band seemed to be gone before its time. I’m not sure Minstrelsy has what it takes to revive their old glory – it’s a bit too much of a curiosity – but it’s a real winner - strange, dirty, and all kinds of fun.
They kick this set off with “Falling of the Pine”, which falls over itself a bit to feel authentic, but your good graces are rewarded once it settles into a groove. “Melody of the Rain” is less convincing, and some out-of-tune harmonicas and fiddles make the intro rough-going, but once the verse kicks, this could just as easily be a lost Grateful Dead song, especially with the trippy, almost Hunteresque lyrics (“She give me bad old rolling thunder / Like some poor drunkard’s laugh / And a flask of midsummer lightning / That just took our photograph”).
It isn’t until you get to “An Old-Timer’s Plaint” that Marah offers a true sense of fusion – they throw some punk into the mix, creating a sound as edgy – and joyous – as what the Violent Femmes offered back in the early ‘80s. “Sing! O Muse of the Mountain” takes a similar approach, allowing electric guitars to drive the blend, and it’s infectious
There are a few missteps, and I’m sorry to admit they arise when young Gus takes the lead, both as songwriter and singer. The lad wrote the music to “Harry Bell”, and his solo performance brims with thoroughly charming energy and a certain logic, and, well, anything else I might say about it would just be mean. But “Rattlesnake”, a punk-jammy slice of oddness, is only off-putting, a quality that doesn’t sit well in this set. Tritsch is incredibly talented, and Marah was kind to include his numbers in this set, but you’ll be forgiven for skipping either track.
Besides, Gus is a hell of a player, and if he squeaks here and there, his fiddling adds a great punch to tracks like the gorgeous “Luliana”, a country waltz with a haunting melody and nifty piano, and “Mountain Minstrelsy”, a wonderful serving of comfort soup loaded with soul and folk-wisdom (“The firefly is brilliant / But he don’t have no mind”).
But if there’s a standout track here, it’s “Ten Centers at the Gate”, an intoxicating gumbo of Bo Diddley grooves, Dixie trombones, and three-part harmonies that blossom into a huge, backing chorus. If you learned the track was left out of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, you wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s an original in every sense of the word.
Now, Bielanko and Smith allow that the Shoemaker may have written some of these lyrics himself – after all, none of the songs had credited authors. But let’s say the story is a bit exaggerated. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Marah came up with the conceit all on their own. Would it matter? Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania is a great album anyway, a weird ‘n’ wild stew of country goodness, seasoned with bits of rock, punk, Appalachia, folk, and great songwriting. Here’s hoping it’s Marah’s first step toward finding their way back onto the scene – we can use people with enough creativity, and insanity, to produce such a wonderful creation.