Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr aren’t the first people you’d expect to come together for a folk music revival. Granted, Joplin’s showed flashes of Appalachian influences throughout his career with the Josh Joplin Group and as a solo artist, but he’s also just as likely to write a pop song. Nashville-based Starr favors rock hooks on her own records, and by her own admission wasn’t well versed in traditional folk until Joplin began introducing her to the genre. Regardless, they come together fairly well on Among the Oak & Ash, which finds the duo tackling ten vintage folk tunes, two originals, and — of all things — one Smiths cover.
The duo don’t set out to reinvent folk music in some 21st Century mold, nor do they put on white gloves and dust around these compositions with an archivist’s care. Recorded in six days, the album contains a few very traditional tracks, as well as several that are distinctly modern in feel. If nothing else, Among the Oak & Ash has a little bit of everything for everyone — especially if you like a good murder ballad.
Opener “Hiram Hubbard” sounds for all the world like a Steeleye Span nugget with its ominous backing and dramatic stabs of guitar, while “Peggy-O” boasts a strictly modern rock arrangement. Standout “Angel Gabriel” loses its traditional gospel feel in favor of something more akin to early, jangly R.E.M., while “The Housewive’s Lament” takes on a singalong feel similar to something like John Prine’s “Paradise”. One particularly nice sequence of songs finds the pair easing from Joplin’s a capella reading of “Pretty Saro” to a slightly plugged-in take on “All the Pretty Little Horses” to a short-but-sweet twang-filled “Come All You Young & Tender Ladies”. To be fair, not all of it works. In the case of “The Water Is Wide”, for example, it’s hard to say that an updated arrangement adds much in the way of uniqueness.
In fact, the most revelatory things here might be Joplin’s “Joseph Hillstrom 1879-1915”, which showcases keen storytelling with a spry ’60s folk revival feel, and their cover of the Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (a bonus track). As strange as it may seem, Joplin and Starr’s decision to keep the original’s peppy arrangement doesn’t make it stick out in a jarring way. In fact, on the heels tracks like “Joseph Hillstrom 1879-1915”, Starr’s croaky twang on “That Long & Lonesome Road”, and the Joplin/Starr original “High, Low & Wide”, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” absolutely sounds like it belongs. But then, Joplin does note in the album’s press materials, “A lot of people think of folk music as something that’s sweet and gentle, but so many of these songs are raunchy and brutal … They cover everything from God to the devil, from unrequited love to murder.” When you get down to it, there’s probably not that much distance between a shallow grave on a mountainside and Morrissey lyrics like “Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking / When I said by rights you should be / Bludgeoned in your bed”.
In tackling some of the darker corners of traditional folk, Joplin and Starr don’t reinvent the genre (nor are they trying to). But they obviously enjoy singing with one another, and several of their renditions bear real fruit. It would be interesting to hear them continue down this road.