STEP INTO Bobby Earthman'S DREAM. It starts with the banjo, the most American of all musical instruments and perhaps the most honest one. Through it, you can hear the stories of African slaves, Civil War soldiers, the blackface of minstrel shows, romance of riverboats rolling down the Mississippi, bluegrass music spawned in the hills of Appalachia, Dixieland jazz birthed in New Orleans, country music born throughout the South, family picnics under the arbor, afterhours motel room jams under a neon glow, "Hee Haw," "The Beverly Hillbillies" Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, John Hartford, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Doc Watson, Alan Munde, Bela Fleck, cutting contests, and picking sessions all the way up to the here and now. This banjo opens a whole other chapter. It speaks of a romance rekindled, a lifetime's passion inflamed and aroused, and the determination to take the instrument to places it's never been before. To create the precise sound he heard inside his head, Earthman took the five-stringed descendent of the "bania" - the instrument made of sheepskin stretched over a hollowed log that was brought from Africa in the 17th century - and altered the sound with his own unique tunings and by adding a low bass string that hotrods the 300 year old instrument into a revved up six-string model. The result takes a giant leap from old school to new age and beyond, all the way to the limits of Out There, far beyond the mountains where banjo music sprang from. Think "Chillbilly." Then think again. The ideas here were hatched straight out of Houston, the perfect metaphor for America as melting pot, musically and otherwise, and the perfect setting, since H-Town is the kind of place that demands you leave all expectations at the door. The best dreams are the shared ones, and in this case, the banjo man has good company in an eclectic cast whose cumulative experience is as deep as the banjo itself-so deep that dreams turn into reality. Eric Jarvis, Earthman's long-time collaborator, plays the multiple roles of producer, co-conspirator, and mad scientist while playing guitar, drums, electric bass, and drum loops, augmented by Dennis Whittaker, the principal double bassist for the Houston Grand Opera. Mandolin, guitar, and fiddle master Mike Marshall, whose curriculum vitae includes collaborations with Stephen Grappelli, Bela Fleck, Tim O'Brien, Mark O'Connor, the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the theme from radio's Car Talk (along with Earl Scruggs, David Grisman, and Tony Rice), brings a lifetime of wisdom, knowledge and genre-bending to the table. Max Dyer's cello, heard on over 200 recordings spanning the musical realms of classical, jazz, new age, folk, opera, country, Latino, Indian classical, Tejano, and rock adds an unexpectedly sublime counterpoint. Fiddle ace Randy Utterback, the flashpoint of the Flying Dogs bluegrass band from the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, is the projects backbone, delivering flash and brilliance with every swing of the bow. Pedal steel guitar virtuoso Tommy Detamore, whose twang thang has sprinkled just the right amount of seasoning on recordings by Texas dancehall veteran Clay Blaker, Texas music all-star Sir Doug Sahm, songster Robert Earl Keen, Johnny Bush aka the Country Caruso, and roadhouse boogie master Bill Kirchen, works his slide across the strings in a new and completely different way. The wildest cards are Joel Guzman and Scarface, native Texans with decidedly different approaches to their common craft. Guzman is the Grammy Award-winning maestro of diatonic button accordion, the squeezebox that puts the X in Tex-Mex. Scarface is the undisputed Godfather of flowing rhyme who put the H in H-Town as part of the storied Geto Boys before launching his own career as a platinum-selling hip hop superstar. On this journey, both souls merge into the harmonic convergence formed around the banjo, making perfect musical sense. When sonic worlds collide, the Mystic Cowboy rides. Dream on. - JOE NICK PATOSKI.
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