By Chris Cooper
John Prine and Mac Wiseman: Standard Songs For Average People
John Prine just sounds like a nice guy. You can almost hear the side of his mouth curl into a grin as he finishes a line, even on a sad little waltz like “The Blue Side Of Lonesome.” He’s also not a “singer’s singer,” he doesn’t belt it out and wow you with his pipes. But for most of us that’s another reason to love the guy, because what he does with what he’s got is always so satisfying and genuine. Joined here by bluegrass troubadour Mac Wiseman, Standard Songs For Average People collects 14 songs, some well known and some not, for these two remarkable singer/songwriters to interpret however they see fit.
You get anything from the brushed snare and tinkling piano nostalgia of “Old Cape Cod” to the world-weary storytelling of “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” both endowed with gorgeous backups from the Carol Lee Singers. You’re also afforded the opportunity to hear these two artists having fun with each other, trading verses with an almost conversational quality that masks some of the fact that this is a studio recording, not an impromptu songwriter’s jam among friends. The acoustic guitars are warm and woody, the vocals sweet, and the arrangements impeccable in their simplicity. It can’t hurt to have a virtual laundry list of fine players contributing to the project, with Tim O’Brien on banjo and mandolin, Del McCoury bassist Mike Bub and multi-instrumentalist/session man extraordinaire Pat McLaughlin on just about everything else with a string on it.
Swinging, two-stepping and tear-in-the-beering its way through just over an hour, Standard Songs For Average People is just the right thing for when you’re just a little blue, and these guys are just such characters on the microphone that it’s hard not to crack a smile after a while. This is an album that draws from many traditional American country sounds, from the mountains way down to Texas. Add to that the caliber of musicians delivering the material, and all you’ve left to do is cue up “Saginaw, Michigan” and turn the volume in a general “up” type direction.
Various Artists: Texas Hoedown Revisited
Fiddle tunes have served as a kind of boot camp not only for budding fiddlers but for many bluegrass mandolinists and guitarists alike. Doc Watson made a name for himself by adapting many such songs to the guitar’s repertoire. With County Records’ recent re-release (with the prerequisite bonus material) of 1965’s Texas Hoedown, you get to hear a few of the lesser known Texas fiddle practitioners; Benny Thomasson, Bartow Riley and Vernon Solomon. Thomasson gets the majority of the aural real estate here, sawing his way through half the CD on the classics “Ace Of Spades” and “Lady’s Fancy,” as well as some more obscure picks like “Killie McCrankie.”
Things almost veer into the realm of swing when Vernon Solomon tackles “Beaumont Rag,” accompanied here by chopping guitar and loping piano from his two sons, only 13 and 16 at the time of these recording sessions. Listening to the performances of all three fiddlers is a lesson in the appreciation of expression and technique inherent in the instrument, with Thomasson going pizzicato in the middle of “Black Mountain Rag” or Solomon’s exceptionally smooth bowing and intonation on “Red Apple Rag.” Riley gets some quick legato runs and a few blue notes in “Grey Eagle,” and in all, though Texas Hoedown Revisited is whole bunch of fiddle to consume in one sitting, it’s an enjoyable meal.
This re-issue as well includes some unusual tracks and live material- Thomasson’s “Star Waltz” is a pretty little tune that suffers a bit from wobbly intonation. He and an unknown group of accompanists get the last word here with live performances of “Forty Years Ago Waltz” and “Golden Eagle Hornpipe,” complete with wind noise in the microphone and the occasional chuckle from an audience member. Taken as a whole, though, Texas Hoedown Revisited surely succeeds in its goal: unearthing 24 tracks of fine Texas fiddle music from three of its best players.