It is so fashionable these days to slam Americana music as kind of boring and obsessed with sepia-toned traditionalism more than being interested in actually entertaining people outside its own neighborhood. This view is overly simplistic, but there is a lot of truth to it. Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien and all those guys are fine, but would you walk a mile to hear them play for free? I thought so.
But this record changes everything.
Casey Driessen is 27 years old. He is from Chicago and earned his degree from Berklee. He composes and arranges and plays fiddle and sometimes sings, and is one of the rising stars of the Americana/bluegrass scene. He has toured with Bela Fleck and O’Brien, who both play on this record, and his trio for this record includes Jamey Haddad on drums and percussion and Viktor Krauss, who has a famous sister but is kind of a star in his own right, on bass.
Driessen is also interested in a hell of a lot of different music. There are tracks here from old-timey American folk music sources, but he also covers Irish jigs and Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance”, and does some very innovative things with his arrangements, like his duet with Haddad on “Snowflake Reel/Done Gone/Cheyenne”, which is just a violin and some slamming jazz-rock drums. And to hear him chug his way through the old murder ballad “Footsteps So Near”, playing his violin like a train and singing through lonesome filters, is to hear a man redeeming his entire genre.
The best thing about this record is Driessen’s sense of freedom. In a scene where jamming is counted more important than rocking out, he frees up Jerry Douglass to play some stinging lap steel lines on “Lady Bowmore” that call Lynyrd Skynyrd and Robert Randolph to mind more than the Grand Ole Opry. Pulling electronics and drony Indian sounds into “Sally in the Garden” is a bold touch that is too busy kicking ass to sound gimmicky.
I love how he uses the weathered jazzy voice of my new hero, Darrell Scott, on two tracks here, especially on the swamp-folk-funk of “Country Blues”, where Scott also gets the chance to wail on some country-fusion riffs. But Driessen’s choice of duet partner on hidden track “Good Boy Blues” — his Staffordshire terrier, Linus — is the best guest star on the record.
It might be a little early to use words like “masterpiece”, as the Slough of Despond that seems to have infected the whole Americana genre could whip back up on Casey Driessen and make him all beiged-out and bland and boring. But for now I’ll just say that I have been listening to this record more than a lot of other so-called “masterpieces” in my collection, and that’s not going to change any time soon.