Thursday, February 5, 2015

Canajan Boys

Last summer we were walking downtown in Charlottetown, my wife, my brother-in-law, his wife, and daughter. Just a block from Province House. It was evening, we’d been out for dinner, and to see Anne of Green Gables. We had parked on a side street and were returning to our car, when alongside the church beside which we were parked we saw, to our amazement, a fox. Not just any fox, but a black fox. None of us were ready, with a camera (or phone) so we didn’t get a picture…but all five of us gasped and said, “Look! A black fox!” A man was walking down the road towards us and he declared, “You must be tourists… we see them every day.” Oh sure…I know it’s officially called a ‘silver’ fox, and that they put money in the pockets of poor Islanders for years (and now it’s not politically correct to even suggest that there might be a market for fox pelts…) but, in 1939, 10% of the population of PEI kept foxes. Now the little critters run wild on the main street

Why all this talk about foxes? It’s because Michael Wrycraft’s lovely cover design for Jon Brooks’ new CD features a very distinguished looking fox, not a silver fox… a red one. And this one is not in a city, he’s roaming free in The Smiling & Beautiful Countryside. Brooks is a powerful singer-songwriter who has been well known for his political songs. Songs like “Fort McMurray,” “Hudson Girl,” “Son of Hamas” and “Cage Fighter” (all from 2012’s Delicate Cages CD) dealt with issues as wide ranging as the Alberta tar sands, Quebec language laws, Palestinian suicide bombers, and a mixed martial arts fighter who had been a Bosnian child soldier. The new album, which takes its title from a Sherlock Holmes quote, is something quite different. It’s a collection of murder ballads. Not Ozark murder ballads handed down from generation to generation, but Canadian murder ballads that Brooks has written. Gore, sex, killing, necrophilia: name your poison and it’s here. I saw Brooks play “Delia’s Gone,” another murder ballad, at a Johnny Cash Tribute Show a year or so ago and it gave me a clue as to what this CD would be like. Wrycraft told me then that Brooks wanted to “piss people off” with his new album. This might do it.

He kicks things off with a shopping list of available weaponry called “Gun Dealer.” Just Brooks’ guitar and percussion on the guitar top. Potent stuff. “People Don’t Think of Others” is a slower song about a murder-suicide on the kitchen floor of a house in Saskatchewan. It reads a bit like a newspaper report. And the next song takes its story right from the headlines, “Queensville” is the story of Christine Jessop and Guy Paul Morin. It happened over 30 years ago and is still unsolved, although Morin spent 10 years in prison for the crime. Brooks outlines the tale accompanied by banjitar and more of that hand percussion. There’s lots more. Kids kill their grammas just “to see,” people are robbed, raped, and murdered. Then there’s an epic nearly 12 minutes long, “The Only Good Thing is an Old Dog.” It is about evil. All set to music. You can hardly turn away. And that’s true of the whole album. Jon Brooks is the only musician on the album – voice, guitar and banjitar, and, of course, that guitar-top percussion. He throws himself into each song, growling and sometimes whispering these terrible reports of violence. You may not make it through all ten tracks at once, but you’ll be back again for sure.

Another Canadian singer-songwriter has released a new CD. James Hill started his recorded life as the featured ukulele player with the Langley School. Since then he’s released a handful of solo albums, each one taking dramatic steps forward from the last. The Old Silo was produced by Joel Plaskett (who sings harmony and plays bass and drums on a few tracks), and the sound is fuller than some of Hill’s earlier records. The ukulele is still his main instrument, but when you hear what Hill does with it (and how Plaskett has recorded it) you’ll never mock that little flea again! Hill’s songs are unique; he’s developed his own style. The lyrics are more like poetry  not always rhyming, not always worrying about syllables and meter – but always fitting in with the strong melodies and instrumentation. Want to hear some raunchy uke, listen to “She’s Still Got It.” Yes, it’s a bigger baritone uke, but it sounds pretty grungy for nylon strings. He even plays slide ukulele on “Tie One On” which rocks out with the best riff rock. Then he tries “to find love in a country song” in “Lovebirds.” This is what roots music ought to be. Respectful of the traditions but taking them in new directions. Roots and branches not logs. You can’t call it “Americana” because these fellas are Canadian through and through. Canadiana sounds too precious. I’d try “Canajan” in memory of Don Harron, but it won’t fly. It’s important for us to pay attention to people like Hill and Brooks. Hill’s up for a Juno at next month’s awards, and Brooks has been nominated 3 times for “Songwriter of the Year” at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. Give them awards, go see them when they come to your town, buy their CDs. Support them because their roots are our roots. There is plenty of Americana available at the same time.

One of the greatest American Dobroists has two new releases that serve as models of the kind of roots music we’ve been talking about. The first is a tribute album to Flatt and Scruggs, cleverly titled The Earls of Leicester. Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt and their Foggy Mountain Boys were probably “the greatest bluegrass, country, folk or Americana band America has ever known.” Well, that’s what the liner notes say, and I’m tempted to agree with them. Americana is a mix of all those styles, a jambalaya of influences. Just like the “Canajan” music Brooks and Hill play. Rather than banjitar and ukuleles The Earls of Leicester play guitars (Shawn Camp), banjo (Charlie Cushman), mandolin (Tim O’Brien), fiddle (Johnny Warren), Barry Bales (bass) and the great Jerry Douglas on dobro. Everybody sings.They do a selection of Flatt & Scruggs tunes written by the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, and any number of bluegrass/country writers including Joe Maphis and Tompall Glaser. The music is every bit as stunning as you might imagine, fine harmonies over a driving string band. And the solos are spectacular.

Spectacular solos bring us to Jerry Douglas’ other new release, a Dobro album by Douglas and two other slide guitar masters. Rob Ickes has been a session guitarist on a variety of bluegrass albums including some with Alison Kraus, the Cox Family, and with his band Blue Highway. Jerry Douglas has added Dobro to recordings by people as diverse as Johnny Mathis, JD Souther, and Tommy Shaw, as well as releasing many albums under his own name. The third member of this trio is the late Mike Auldridge who passed away at the end of December 2012. He was very much alive when they recorded The Three Bells though. Douglas knew that Auldridge was ill, and he and Ickes made time to capture these last recordings before Mike’s time was up. The record is not a sad look back though, it’s filled with energetic, forward-looking picking that celebrates the pickers and the instruments. Through a series of standards and some new originals these three show us what can be done by laying a guitar on your lap and fretting it with a piece of steel. “Hawaiian noises?” maybe a few, but every other kind of sliding music you can imagine. Perhaps my favourite is Auldridge’s medley of “Til There Was You/Moon River,” but it might be the title cut, handed down from Edith Piaf through The Browns to the hands of these gents. Beautiful.

Americana? Canajan? Roots? Whatever you call it, these four albums are linked by a sense of history and the desire to push that history into the future. Music made by people who still know how to play actual stringed instruments. It’s inspiring. Oh, and about that fox in Charlottetown…we saw him again as we were driving out of town, back to Summerside. He was running across the road, from between parked cars. He seemed comfortable in the city, well aware that he was able to run without fear of being trapped by his past.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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