Ben Winship's Stringed Instrument Adventures in Americana

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Ben Winship's two new Americana albums give listeners the choice of tight and focused or loose and eclectic. But it is perfectly fine to choose both.

Ben Winship

Snake River Records

19 July 2019

Ben Winship

Snake River Records

19 July 2019

There was a brief period in the early 1990s when releasing two albums on the same day was all the rage for certain big rock stars. Guns N' Roses famously led the way with their Use Your Illusion albums in September 1991. Just a few months later, Bruce Springsteen checked in with Lucky Town and Human Touch. This trend cooled off, though in 2004 Nelly gifted us with Sweat and Suit because in 2004 there was no such thing as too much Nelly.

Now, with Acorns and Toolshed, it's Ben Winship's turn.

Winship may not be as well-known as Guns N' Roses, the Boss, and Nelly, but he has built himself a comfortable and creative career as a songwriter, recording studio owner, audio engineer, producer, and player of stringed instruments, particularly mandolin. Winship's varied responsibilities have slowed down his solo career, but he is making the best of his two-albums-in-one-day return.

While Winship's music falls easily within the Americana genre, his two new albums demonstrate just how broad his music – and the Americana genre itself – can be.

Acorns focuses primarily on small group acoustic music. Without being a flat-out bluegrass album, many of the songs feature a mandolin/fiddle/banjo/bass/guitar lineup that has a distinct modern bluegrass feel. This feel is evident right out of the gate with "A Little Goes a Long Way", and carries through both vocal and instrumental tracks. Winship's mandolin playing sparkles throughout Acorns, but it is clear that he is happy to be among the other players. No star trips happening here.

While Acorns is tight and focused, Toolshed is all over the place. The opening title track is a charged-up rock 'n' roll-with-mandolin tune that might remind listeners of the inspired goofiness happening in Bob Dylan's kitchen back when the Traveling Wilburys were writing catchy future Dad Rock classics. In addition to Winship's mandolin, "Toolshed" is particularly enlivened by an electric guitar solo by Winship's former college housemate Rich Brotherton, whose many musical credits include work with Robert Earl Keen.

Winship follows his muse through a variety of twists and turns on Toolshed. "Crossing the Great Divide", featuring the Infamous Stringdusters' Travis Book on vocals, succeeds in Winship's attempt to create the stately feel of the Band, with a horn section. "Ragged But Right" and "What's the Matter with the Well", which features Ivan Neville on vocals, have different New Orleans vibes happening. Other songs, such as "The Buzzards Dilemma" and "Which Way to Fly", take the bluegrass feel of tracks from Acorns into more progressive terrain.

While Acorns is focused, and Toolshed is eclectic, the albums share the strengths of Winship's songwriting/song selection and the fine musicianship of all involved. Which album is "better" will ultimately come down to a listener's taste, but both have much to offer.

Winship also revives the albums-full-of-guest-artists concept on both Acorns and Toolshed, but the friends and family who drop in, including Winship's son Owen, never overshadow the proceedings. Everyone is there for the party, and all are clearly having a splendid time.

Finally, as if releasing two albums in one day and bringing along special guests weren't enough, Winship has revived one more trend left behind in the CD era – the secret bonus track. Both Acorns and Toolshed contain bonus tracks. The secret song on Acorns is "Boys Them Buzzards Are Flying", a somewhat slightly crazed instrumental that threatens to fly off the rails but doesn't, leading Winship or one of the other assembled musicians to exclaim at the end, "That was just kind of generally panicked from the word 'go'".

Toolshed, meanwhile, closes with "I Thought You Were a Goat #2", a goofy rap that is just intriguing enough to make you wonder what "I Thought You Were a Goat #1" might sound like if such a thing exists in the Winship vault. Both hidden songs end their respective albums on notes that indicate how much fun the Acorns/Toolshed sessions must have been.

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