Jim and Jesse; Doc Watson; V/A Roots and Branches CD reviews [Capitol]

Music Reviews
Jim and Jesse; Doc Watson; V/A Roots and Branches CD reviews [Capitol]
Oct 22, 2002, 21:51

JIM & JESSE First Sounds: The Capitol Years CD DOC WATSON Songs From Home CD VARIOUS ARTISTS Roots and Branches CD

The unforeseen but thoroughly welcome success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack has generated a raging roots-consciousness, the likes of which haven't been seen since the early 60s folk boom. Seeing the gold in them thar hills, some of the bigger labels are once again mining the richness of their own vaults. And it's a great thing, as each one of these exciting, essential collections from Capitol so beautifully demonstrates.

Jim & Jesse McReynolds stand tall among the gods of bluegrass. One of the classic high-harmony brother duos, Jim & Jesse were inspired by the great Monroe Brothers recordings of the 30s and 40s and their own brilliant contemporaries, The Louvin Brothers (a wonderful version of The Louvin's' “Are You Missing Me?” is featured here). Combining the results of their first two sessions for the label (1952 and '53), this seamless disc includes the romping “Air Mail Special,” the yearning lament “Just Wondering Why,” and the perhaps surprising anti-war piece, “Purple Heart.”  Jesse was a mandolin innovator, adapting Earl Scruggs' syncopated, cross-picking banjo style to his own technique and creating a whole new approach to the instrument. If you dig the high lonesome sound, you could do worse than start here; genetically intuitive, brotherly voices rise and blend like gold and silver honey, the music flowing rapidly beneath like the clear, sparkling current of a mountain brook. (Side note: we lost Jim McReynolds, at the age of 75, on New Year's Eve of last year.)

If the U.S. Postal Service doesn't have a stamp on deck for Doc Watson, it's a national crime. A towering treasure of American music, Watson is one of those few artists—like Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, or Miles Davis—whose greatness has the power to transcend genre. Besides being the greatest living flat-pick guitar player, as well as an expert on five-string banjo and mouth harp, Doc is an excellent singer and a repository of folk song surpassed by only Leadbelly himself. Truly one of the last of the real country bluesmen—regardless of race—his talent is still astounding at nearly 80 years of age, and I implore you to go and see so for yourself the next time he's in town. Though Watson's best stuff is on his (early 60s) Folkways and Vanguard LPs, Songs From Home is a nice roundup of 1970s recordings, made for the Poppy label and featuring the playing of his late son, Merle. But worth any price are the pair of shiver-inducing, a capella ballads, “Wake Up Little Maggie” and “St. James Hospital.” Just like Ralph Stanley's “O Death,” they go right through ya.

Its cheesy cover might look like that of some granola-dipped ecology album from the 70s, but the Roots and Branches disc is actually quite solid. A winning overview of nearly six decades of Capitol's roots material, it stretches from mid-40s cuts by Leadbelly, Merle Travis, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and (pre-Sam Cooke) gospel greats The Soul Stirrers to a mid-80s medley of Mississippi John Hurt tunes by Chris Smither. Tying in to the above releases, it kicks off with Doc Watson on a sprightly run through “Keep On The Sunny Side,” and Jim & Jesse's “Are You Lost In Sin” is reprised from their own disc. A live 1970 version of “John The Revelator” by Son House—sans guitar—is unbelievably jaw-dropping; a Carter Family track, “Bury Me Beneath The Willow,” is nice, but sounds like it was cut in the hi-fi era and doesn't approach the prickly grandeur of their 20s Victor or 30s Bluebird sides. And, fine as the Smither cut and the version of “Listen To The Mockingbird” by Clarence White's (pre-Byrds) Kentucky Colonels sound, it seems aesthetically wrong that such artists are presented in the company of the real thing. But fine sound is really what it's all about, and, as a whole, this set plays really well. I can't help but give it a hearty thumbs up. And one more to Capitol for getting it done. [Capitol]

-Peter Aaron

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