As the number of CDs on retail racks dwindles as inexorably as the daylight hours at this time of year, it’s ever more difficult to find the right gift disc for the roots-music fan. That’s why I’ve been prowling around the electronic ethers of the Web, scoping out prime releases in the folk, blues, bluegrass and Celtic music genres for you. Here’s my hot list.
The earliest blues song we know of is “Joe Turner’s Blues,” heard in New Orleans in 1890. That and other traditional Crescent City tunes are performed on Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues (Warner Bros.). This pairing of the Nawlins trumpet virtuoso and the British guitar god represents the origins and evolution of the blues, respectively. Here they’re backed by a Dixieland combo consisting of clarinet, trombone, piano, banjo, bass, drums, keyboards, and second trumpet. Taj Mahal guests on two sweet tracks.
Along with the late William Clarke, harmonica ace Rod Piazza was a protégé of Kansas City bluesman George Smith, and subsequently an architect of the West Coast swing sound. Another fine CD to consider is Piazza’s latest, Almighty Dollar (Delta Groove Productions). For this outing, Piazza, hailed by Downbeat magazine as “a superior diatonic and chromatic harmonica player with style,” is joined by guitarist Rusty Zinn, fellow harp player Johnny Dyer, bassists Norm Gonzalez on electric and Hank Van Sickle on upright, and sax man Jonny Viau.
For bluegrassers, Grammy winner Alison Krauss and Union Station have Paper Airplane, their first record together since 2004. Krauss’ mellifluous vocals, rather than her fiddle playing, are center-stage here, and while the album breaks no new ground, the picking is flawless and the song choice satisfying. Dan Tyminski sings lead on three tracks, and Dobro king Jerry Douglas contributes peerless twanging. For more hillbilly jazz, local heroes the Gibson Brothers live up to their laurels as 2010 IMBA winners with their new disc, Help My Brother (Compass Records). Framed by their masterful close harmony singing, the songs look at family, lives gone wrong, and the need for love. The brothers also serve up fine covers of Jim and Jesse and the Louvin Brothers.
How many Celtic bands can draw a crowd of a quarter-million? The Irish group Dervish did at the Rock in Rio festival. Originally formed to record the richly ornamented traditional music of their native County Sligo, they pushed on to earn supergroup status. Live at Johnny Fox’s (Emtee Music) is taken from a 1996 show at Glencullen, near Dublin, where the sextet fire off swirling dance tunes and sing Ireland’s mournful songs, here often performed in Gaelic. Ireland alone has a musical instrument for a national symbol. Masters of the Irish Harp, an anthology of leading Irish harpers, includes the playing of Grammy winners and Riverdance troupe members who have entertained U.S. presidents. The music here spans up to five centuries; harp tunes by the Baroque-era bard Turlough O’Carolan are mingled with jigs and reels and even a 21st-century composition for harp, flute and trumpet. This one’s a delight.
Next year marks the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth. Note of Hope—A Celebration of Woody Guthrie (429 Records) offers unpublished lyrics by the Dustbowl balladeer set to music by Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Lou Reed, Madeline Peyroux, Pete Seeger, Tony Triscka, and others. Readings of Guthrie’s critically acclaimed prose are included, most notably by Studs Terkel. While it’s unlikely to be the occasion’s sole tribute to Guthrie, it will nonetheless be hard to beat.
Gillian Welch and longtime musical partner David Rawlings ended an eight-year songwriting hiatus this summer with The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony Records). The two reportedly spent considerable time tweaking their old-time-flavored material, and critics have lauded the 10-track, sparely textured album as some of their best work. With its dark Appalachian themes of heartbreak and tragedy, this is must-have Welch.