Graded on a Curve:
Black Twig Pickers,
Rough Carpenters

Appalachian old-time specialists the Black Twig Pickers have a new recording in the racks. Not only does Rough Carpenters amply display their impressive growth as a vibrant vessel of the string-band tradition, it also presents a succinct portrait of one of the best groups in the whole contemporary scene, and it’s their best album yet.

There are always dangers when attempting to preserve through performance any aged artistic tradition that has fallen outside of the mainstream yet still commands a fervent following. One potential problem is the tendency to fall into an overly polite or reverent mode, a trap that will certainly satisfy a receivership seeking a mild-mannered and highly respectful experience, but will reliably miss capturing the creative spark that made the form being reproduced so interesting in the first place.

Attempting to retain that spark brings up another thorny issue, that being the attempt at preservation through modernization. Sometimes this approach actually works, but far more frequently it simply weakens the tradition with gestures toward present-day relevance, attitudes that are well meaning but ultimately wrongheaded.

And these dangers flare up quite often when the form being reproduced is a musical one. Part of the issue is due to the expectations of those desiring to hear it; some want the aural equivalent of an antique and others demand a connection to the sounds being made right now.

So on one hand there are numerous Dixieland revivalists that offer structural recreation sans any of the edge and power found in the original recordings, and on the other side frustrating tributes that present the Classical composer or shadowy bluesman as proto-rock star. The former is bland and underwhelming and the later often quite irritating.

The reproduction of old-time music can sidestep these problems somewhat, especially in the string-band zone. Even if extremely polite in execution, the root of the thing is usually lively enough and possessive of an inherent earthiness to relate some level of pleasant return. And sawing on a fiddle or plucking a banjo still looks cool enough that only a modicum of folks are attempting to somehow contemporize the experience.

If the vogue for old-time music crested shortly after the widespread success of O Brother Where Art Thou?, I still have the sneaking suspicion that more groups of an old-timey orientation are doing their thing right now than ever before, and that includes the ‘60s folk boom. Outside of the plain fact that lots of people really enjoy hearing it, much of the reason comes down to its adaptability.

It’s acoustic, so noise ordinances aren’t an issue, and because it’s relatively quiet it can be played all over the place; in the court house square, in the coffee shop or restaurant, at assorted types of events or parties and yes, even in the club.

And all of this is admirable mainly because music helps to make the world go ‘round, y’know? But it’s also crucial to avoid the lumping of everybody playing some form of string-band descended stuff into the same bag just because it’s “old.” If most are well-meaning and pleasant, in the end they very rarely exceed the aura of the quaint. But a small handful gets so deep into the vitality of the sounds being tapped that in the process they even manage to outclass the majority of music being created in a more contemporary context. And one of the finest examples of this transcendence is The Black Twig Pickers.

Members Mike Gangloff, Isak Howell, Nathan Bowles, and recent addition Sally Anne Morgan do far more than replicate old-time music’s surface qualities. Instead, they engage with it so deeply they can be accurately described as students of the style. Some will peshaw this as overzealous appreciation, not recognizing any difference between the Pickers’ tenacity and the dedication of any committed artist.

The big distinction is that the old-time musical tradition is a language that’s in peril of being lost. That a person doesn’t learn the blues from an instruction manual is a statement most music fans understand. Many continue to replicate it or hybridize it, but to effectively play the blues one needs more than just intense desire, one must also be conversant with the circumstances and environments that shape it.

The same is true in this case. Like the blues, the Appalachian old-time style that inspires The Black Twig Pickers is a form transmitted orally and through shared experience. In addition to a ton of practicing and performing, that also means a lot of talking, even more listening, and very importantly learning to accept mistakes, the better to avoid any creeping virtuosity.

For the student musician always needs to be on their guard against that overabundance of reverence. Respect is of course a given, but too much veneration derails from the spirit in which the original stuff was created. Perhaps that’s why Rough Carpenters, the latest album from The Black Twig Pickers, contains tunes from outside their beloved Southwestern Virginia wheelhouse. Instead of getting too comfortable, these folks relish a challenge (this is also indicative in their collaborations with guitarists Charlie Parr and the late Jack Rose), and it’s a huge part of why their stuff is so alive.

On last year’s 2-song 12-inch EP Wompyjawed, the Pickers elected to stretch out, taking both sides of the vinyl beyond the 10-minute mark, letting technological advances assist them in revealing for modern listeners what a weekend throw-down in Southern VA might’ve sounded like. By contrast, Rough Carpenters features a briskly paced fourteen cuts that pack in a lot of variety, the track’s assemblage also forming an interesting commentary upon their chosen style.

All the tunes here save one are from traditional sources, and the fiddle of opener “Blind Man’s Lament” holds more than a hint of the Irish, which is unsurprising given the history of US immigration. Traditions were definitely carried over the water, and that Rough Carpenters begins with this tune seems quite purposeful. However, at its core it’s still a fine example of vintage Mountain Music.

The toughness of the fiddle’s tone is simply exquisite, though it contrasts quite sharply with a recording made in the early-‘70s by Alva Greene, her version getting into some serious catgut grinding. These are differences of region, and the Pickers’ cognizance of the distinctions play an intrinsic part in why their records are so vital to the here and now. Reading about the geographic uniqueness of the music is one thing. Hearing it delivered with such vigor is immediately a far more enlivening experience.

If the record starts with a rumination upon Irish to Appalachian transference, the second track is very much a statement of purpose. The title tune stands as the one original piece on the LP, and it’s delivered with a raw, joyous intensity through banjo, mouth harp, and vocals, their boisterous lack of polish directly relating to the title of the song. This isn’t a replication of the past. Rather, it’s a continuation of its very aesthetic.

And the group’s use of vocals helps to insure against the aforementioned reverence. And when they sing, they can’t help but mildly remind this writer of the early work of the Holy Modal Rounders. And it’s interesting that the Twigs arrived at their current destination from the experimental music scene (Gangloff and Bowles are both members of the excellent avant-rock unit Pelt) while the Rounders began in a relatively traditional mode only to journey into far more bent sonic terrain as the ‘60s progressed.

And there are other major differences between the Rounders and the Pickers, a big one being that the former’s engagement with old-time sensibilities was part of an admirable ‘60’s pluralism, making it clear that poor people of diverse backgrounds could create great art. This inclusionary idea has continued into the present, but it’s been compromised greatly by a near obsession with the New. Prefabricated pop stars get infused with meaning while essential elements in our history get diminished or ignored as being old-hat. Simply put, the Black Twig Pickers are a tonic to this state of affairs.

And one listen to “Little Rose” reveals an instrumental toughness that’s almost avant-garde in its intensity. But what makes it so effective is that it’s so natural. The Twigs aren’t changing a thing. They’re just doing the music justice by committing themselves to the hard but rewarding work of truly understanding it.

The next track “Banks of the Arkansas” adds upright bass from guest Joseph Dejarnette and provides a killer example the ensemble string-band sound; there’s fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mouth harp. But it stands out due to the execution, specifically the attention given to the blending and layering of the individual instruments.

Indeed, the variety of instrumentation on Rough Carpenters is really a treat. Of particular note is Bowles’ washboard on “Elkhorn Ridge,” adding depth to a highly spirited and faultlessly rendered tune. This combination of adeptness and range allows them to settle into a groove without lessening the record’s overall effectiveness. As evidence, the sweetly keening fiddles of “Where the Whippoorwills Whisper Goodnight” will surely warm the heart of anyone wishing to hear the root of so much subsequent development in country music.

There are other standouts; the beautiful, almost lush melody of “You Play the High Card I’ll Play the Ace” for one instance, the teetering fleetness of “Jack of Diamonds” for another. But with true savvy they save the best for last; “I Can’t Stay Here By Myself” finds Bowles going it alone on banjo and vocals.

It is a song of deep anguish, in some ways reminiscent of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s amazing “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” with Bowles’ voice and his instrument’s magnificent tone combining to communicate a tormented loneliness with great sincerity. It is thoroughly modern without trying to be, and it bookends fantastically with “Blind Man’s Lament.” One details a grand beginning, the other presents an emotional intensity that performers have been striving to attain in more up to date contexts for decades.

In between these two poles, Rough Carpenters holds a wealth of highly illuminating goodness. The Black Twig Pickers might be classified as old-time, but their music very much belongs to the present. And through tenacity and skill it’s got a firm lock on the future.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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