[24 October 2006]
Trouble in Mind
Lonesome Road Blues
Old Cow Died
If you are familiar with the above titles, you are likely very familiar with them: you are a traditional music fan. You can hum these melodies, based on the fact that you’ve heard them sung many times, by a variety of artists. You can also tell a little story about “John Henry”—the man, the legend, the song—though your story might differ from mine, based on our preferred interpretation.
That last word—interpretation—is a key one within old-time music. In old-time music, the song is larger than the performer; the performers will one day pass on, but these traditional songs will continue to be worthy of revisiting and reinterpretation. Sure, there’s something to be said for pursuing innovation and diversity in the form of a “new” sound on one’s laptop or an electric guitar with alternate tuning. But there’s an oft-underappreciated counterargument which maintains that time-tested stories and sounds have more resonance than yesterday’s folktronica. If we fast forward to the (hopefully near) future when the genre of glitch-hop is a faded memory, some nine-year-old will still be learning to play “Cripple Creek” on his grandpa’s banjo in the foothills of North Carolina.
It may be Riley Baugus’ name on the cover of Long Steel Rail, but the star of this album is the songs—traditional songs you’ve heard many times before, reinterpreted. “It’s a long steel rail and a short cross tie / I’ll ramble this road until I die” is a couplet from the title track and a succinct description of the old-time musician.
Baugus’ reinterpretations are not the only reason he exemplifies old-time. He also has an imperfect voice, which aligns to the old-time credo that this music is for everyman and needn’t be pitch-perfect. His instrumental prowess is impressively displayed on both the fiddle (“Sail Away Ladies”) and the banjo (“Rove Riley Rove”). And, as the best old-time musicians do, Baugus has unearthed some obscure gems from the past—most notably, the beautiful old gospel number “What Are They Doing in Heaven.” It’s the album’s strongest point, though perhaps based on the unique strength of the song itself.
Throughout much of Long Steel Rail, Baugus enlists the help of Tim O’Brien and the like-minded Dirk Powell, and they deftly swap fiddle, banjo, and guitar. “I’m Troubled” is a reincarnation of “Trouble in Mind” that benefits from Powell’s fiddle, as well as O’Brien’s harmony vocals. But “George Collins” is so minor-key that it sounds off-key, and the mid-tempo interpretation of “Boll Weevil” would be more appropriate for a fireside than an album recording. I’m a huge fan of the song “Lonesome Road Blues”, but this version is neither lonesome nor bluesy enough for me.
If you passed the opening traditional music fan test, then Long Steel Rail will appeal to your sensibilities. But for those of you new to the genre, this album may not be the best introduction. Baugus’s voice isn’t engaging enough to warrant two a capaella tunes within 14 songs. In fact, one would expect more instrumentals from such a fine instrumentalist. The solo vocal “Wondering Boy” has a familiar cadence and a certain cragginess that is slightly reminiscent of Roscoe Holcomb, but without Holcomb’s sheer power.
You’ll find Baugus live and on record in several more enjoyable environments: he’s a frequent collaborator with Powell and O’Brien, and can be heard playing with Balfa Toujours and Polecat Creek. If you missed him during the Down from the Mountain tour, you can rent Cold Mountain and find him playing banjo behind a fella named Jack White. Although Long Steel Rail is not particularly inspiring, the traditions of old-time music are indeed alive, and Baugus plays an important role in preserving this heritage.