In this live studio session recorded November 17, 2000, at the Fox Theater in Hanford, California (and originally issued in 2001), John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson lead a superb ensemble in a country, folk, and bluegrass set. McEuen is a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Ibbotson nearly so; the two played together in the group from the late 1960s to the 1980s. The Nitty Gritties put out 27 albums in total, including the platinum-selling Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
AIX gives us an unusual number of options for viewing and listening. Video choices include viewing a placeholder screen for each song and basically just listening to the audio, or watching full video footage of the recording session. In addition, the viewer may choose to watch the film from a single camera angle or multiple ones. Compared to other labels, AIX is very conscientious and thorough in explaining technical recording details, reminding us whenever they can that all audio of these unamplified acoustic instruments is presented to us at 96 Hz/24 bits. Keeping in mind that the footage is twelve years old, the video quality leaves something to be desired. The editors made do with what they had, but the lighting is poor, and two of the four video cameras are handheld, plaguing their pans with the wiggles. Bonus material includes a slideshow of still shots from the players’ younger days, a library of shots from this recording, and biographies of and interviews with the performers.
Standouts on this recording are “Acoustic Traveler,” on which the ensemble just cooks; “Too Late Love Comes to Me,” featuring guest artist Jennifer Warnes; and “The Oak and the Laurel,” an intimate but strident duet between Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum. This disc delivers just what you’d expect when a group of stellar old-time country music performers and a bunch of omnidirectional mics gather in a circle. Highly recommended.
Filmed live at the Loveless Barn in Nashville in January 2012, the fourteen songs on this disc were performed as part of the Pa’s Fiddle project. The project’s goal is to bring to life all 127 songs that are described and explored in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiographical series The Little House on the Prairie. The author’s “Pa” was unusually obsessed with music, and hearing the fiddle every day of her childhood was an atypical experience for a late-nineteenth-century homesteader. In the disc’s bonus material, musicologist Dale Cockrell introduces the songs and performers that appear on the disc. Cockrell sums up the mission of the project—a collaboration between himself and actor Dean Butler, who played Laura’s husband on the Little House on the Prairie TV show—nicely, saying “when Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing these books in the 1930s and 40s, she expected her readers to hear the music. To not hear the music is to experience the books in a two-dimensional way, so I’m trying to give life to the books to encourage people to listen to the music. Without the music, the narratives are incomplete.”
The performances on this disc are modern arrangements, and probably sound very little like what Wilder heard as a child. “O California”—a parody of Foster’s picking frenzy “O Susanna”—is performed at half tempo, and “Roll the Old Chariot Along” and “The Battle of Cry of Freedom” are sung by a black men’s gospel sextet. Perhaps a glance at the roster of performers—country rock artist Rodney Atkins; Ronnie Milsap, whose roots are in R&B and country/pop crossover; and the young a cappella group Committed, whose members were crowned champions of the second season of NBC’s competition The Sing Off—will clue the viewer into the potential inauthenticity of the show, but I would have appreciated more thoughtful transparency on the part of Cockrell, Butler, and music director Randy Scruggs.
The only featured performers who play instruments are Milsap and a silver-haired Randy Travis, though Travis only plays on the choruses of “The Sweet By and By” and not at all on “Rock of Ages.” Onstage, there is an odd separation of instrumentalists and featured vocalists, with the strings and trap set shoved to the farthest possible edges of stages right and left, leaving an unnecessarily enormous area for the singers and a clear view of the “set:” a small, painted backdrop of a prairie, foregrounded by a rickety wagon and a sidesaddle resting on a wooden rail fence. In between songs are short interviews with performers and brief verbal program notes from Cockrell. Thankfully, the shackles are loosened if not removed from the assembled “Pa’s Fiddle” band for their toe-tapping rendition of “The Arkansas Traveler.” Bonus material includes a helpful walk-through of the project by Cockrell and a trailer for Little House on the Prairie: the Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In addition, Natalie Grant performs a hymn that was not included with the final version of the disc; she sings “There is a Fountain” like a power ballad, her dramatic bleating overpowering the rustic string ensemble, and it’s generally stagnant performance on the part of all involved. A certain amount of humility and instrumental versatility is required for authentic old-time music, and the top-billed performers on this disc needed more of both.
This disc was a challenge for me. If the point of the project is to help readers of Wilder’s series understand the music of her time, why enlist high-profile gospel singers and country-rock stars? Legitimacy in performance practice has been thrown out the homestead window, and that decision could lead to a misleading experience for the target audiences of this disc (presumably the general public or, in an academic setting, junior high students).
– Anne Shelley