july 2008

Yankee Musical Moonshine

By Derk Richardson


Crooked Still
Signature Sounds

First Alison Krauss, then Nickel Creek, and more recently Crooked Still have made the world not only safe but apparently eager as well, for soft-focus bluegrass and string band music. In the new quintet incarnation of Crooked Still that recorded the group’s third CD, banjo player Gregory Liszt, double bassist Corey DiMario, and new members Tristan Clarridge (cello, replacing founding member Rushad Eggleston) and Brittany Haas (five-string fiddle) provide a warm, sometimes earthy, sometimes vaporous soundscape for the unspeakably lovely and airy voice of Aoife O'Donovan. The banjo is played with much space between the notes and never sounds harsh; the fiddle combines classical elegance with the distinctive “chop” and edge timbre introduced into new acoustic music by one of Haas’s mentors, violinist Darol Anger (David Grisman Quintet, Turtle Island String Quartet, Psychograss, Republic of Strings); and the cello does at least double duty, conspiring with the fiddle in the upper range and the bass in the lower to create a chamber string quartet feel and put more heft and bottom into the sound than you might expect from more traditional ensembles.

The absence of mandolin and acoustic guitar distinguish Crooked Still from most old-school and new-wave acoustic groups in the genre. Indeed, because the band was founded by music scholars from the New England Conservatory of Music (O’Donovan and DiMario), the Berklee College of Music (Eggleston), and MIT (Liszt), it is tempting to prejudge the project as overly schooled—grass-ademic if you will. But like somewhat similar efforts by Anger (notably his Heritage project) and Mark O’Connor (another crucial influence), the roots always show. Here, they are especially evident on such songs as Ola Belle Reed’s “Undone In Sorrow”; T.W. Carter’s 1844 song “Florence”; Mississippi John Hurt’s “Baby, What’s Wrong With You?”; and a passel of songs “from the singing of …” Bertha Tolliver, Frank Proffitt, Mr. and Mrs. Sams, and others. The band can romp convincingly, but O’Donovan, occasionally buoyed by the all-star harmony vocals of Tim O’Brien, Ruth Unger Merenda, and Amy Helm, is most memorably soulful on the doleful originals “Low Down and Dirty” and “Oh, Agamemnon” (music by Haas), and “Pharaoh,” inspired by the Alan Lomax recording of Sidney Carter. Although the music rarely gets rough and tumble, a seething intensity informs the immediately palatable sweetness, boding well for the future of this Yankee musical moonshine.

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Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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