Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Nathan Salsburg, Beargrass Song 7”, 2017

This 7” was released to coincide with Record Store Day 2017. The last time Oldham presented a record store day release was his Hummingbird 10” from 2012. His collaborator here, guitarist Nathan Salsburg a fellow Kentuckian, may well be responsible for the selection of the two additional tracks—he worked as a folklorist for the Alan Lomax archive in the past. The two additional tracks were both written by Little Daw Henson, the first of which dates back to 1937. The single’s title track, “Beargrass Song” was made “at the behest of filmmaker Morgan Atkinson for Beargrass: The Creek in Our Backyard, his 2016 documentary about the history and status of Louisville’s Beargrass Creek,” reads the blurb on the back sleeve.

Beargrass Song… this one written mostly by Oldham, with Salsburg contributing an intro, is a ditty poetic tribute to the creek itself. Water is paired up with “fire,” “blood” and “life,” with observations made about these pairings, with the final touch being that we cannot tell where water ends and life begins. Meanwhile the Beargrass creek does a lot of rolling, “before us…among us … after we’re gone,” such is the nature of nature (to survive us), and a creek (to flow/roll on). It’s a strange little thing to write a song about, but even stranger to think a whole documentary was made about it. On his Facebook page, Nathan Salsburg mentions “our beloved if much maligned local creek here in Louisville,” and also describes the creek as “bedraggled.” Twice Oldham sings, “We named it Beargrass,” but we never learn why. A quick google search reveals “xerophyllum tenax” as its Latin name, but also “squaw grass,” “soap grass,” “quip quip” and “Indian basket grass” as alternatives. So, a useful grass with a long history, and presumably one that grows in abundance alongside the creek that received its namesake. Utlimately, the creek wins though, because it’ll remain long after the singer has gone. Musically it’s a crisp, warm, fingerpicked affair, with a rolling, eddying quality to the melody, very simple, but yet not at all. The repeated use of “roll” in the lyrics applies to the melody, and the uninterrupted flow of notes streaming from the two guitars. Indeed, where does one guitar end and the other begin? A pleasant plaintive nostalgic quality to this quite short song.

Wallins Creek Girls… whose original opening line goes, “My names is Hicks and Henson,” but which Oldham changes to “Our names are Salz and Bonny,” who are “two rounder boys.” But the singer then focuses his attention on two girls, a blonde and a brunette, who had been hanging out in the county, going “from town to town” bumming cigarettes and free rides. There must be hidden lust in this song, because the singer seems quite fixated on them, not dissimilar to the old man in “Milk Train,” the Everly Brothers song Oldham covered on What The Brothers Sang in 2013. He seems a touch disappointed that the only thing these girls “wanted to do was smoke cigarettes and car ride.” He describes the blonde as “fast and blue-eyed,” while the black-headed one is “dark skinned and black eyed” but doesn’t actually smoke cigarettes. Erm, that’s about it really. The devil’s in the details I guess, such as this line, “We’d give old Prince Albert but they’d rather have Old Gold.” The most endearing thing about this song is the scansion of lines that sometimes have one too many syllables for the rhythm. The digital versions of this coming out of my Macbook Pro speakers are somewhat more hi-fi than my vinyl copy. It’s a very pleasant tune, all played on fingerplucked acoustic guitar, with a seesawing melody, and banjo-esque feel to the playing. Oldham sings it in a sort of flat weary kind of voice, which, taken with the lyrics and syllabic clutter somehow lends the song a light comic quality.

Fare You Well, My Little Annie Darling… was originally rehearsed and played in 2015 as a contribution to a celebration of Alan Lomax’s Kentucky recordings for the annual Seedtime on the Cumberland festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky, (as per the liner notes.) It relays a sad tale of goodbye to Annie by a mournful fingerpicker, decrying “I never expect to see you anymore.” He sings “farewell,” and proclaims, bizarrely in the second verse, “All I wants is that fingering I gave you,” while lamenting in the third, that “I’m a cross in that old piney mountain.” There’s a baby involved, and he tells her to go rock it and feed it candy. This definitely feels/sounds more old-timey than the previous song. It’s much more repetitive in both notes played and blues-ballad structure with three repeated lines followed by the chorus line. It’s appropriately recorded without any bells and whistles. Reminds me of Bob Dylan’s interest in these kinds of ancient folk songs as heard on his two early 90s covers albums.

A nice little collection of three songs played on twin guitars, some faint backing vocals from Salsburg, and Oldham in no-frills folk mode. I like this piece of vinyl. It’s the kind that makes you yearn for a whole album in this style.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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2 Responses to Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Nathan Salsburg, Beargrass Song 7”, 2017

  1. John William Haskins II says:

    I picked up my copy yesterday at Guestroom Records on Frankfort Ave. in Louisville, Kentucky.

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