Snake River SRR-125

   It’s funny—in a very good way—that this amiable duo should call themselves Growling Old Men. But that’s the name Ben Winship and John Lowell have taken. It’s certainly a nod to the beloved old-time tune “Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman,” and it’s wonderfully unfitting for such a genial and musically dexterous collaboration. That’s clear right from the lively opening rhythm chops and smooth vocal stylings of their latest album.

Chicken Feed & Baling Twine is the fourth CD by this Northern Rockies-based partnership (guitarist Lowell is from Montana and Winship, who plays mandolin, mandola and octave mandolin, is from Idaho). It’s a great follow-up to their Shuttle Diplomacy (recorded with British musician friends from their frequent tours of the United Kingdom) and Occupational Hazards.

The material here effortlessly combines traditional material (“Lazy John” and “Elzik’s Farewell”) with superb contemporary numbers that sound like they’ve been sung for generations (notably the hard-hitting “Billy Gray” by Norman Blake and Jeffrey Foucault’s hauntingly tragic “Doubletree”). The duo’s own songwriting talents also come to the fore: Lowell shows a gift for penning wistful ballads (“How Many Days” and “Wild Jack”), while Winship has an equal talent for wryly humorous outings (“My Name’s Mudd” and “Toolshed”).

Growling Old Men is definitely in the tradition of the classic old-time and early-bluegrass brother duos of the 1930s. But they possess a marvelous modern quality. Hear in your mind’s ear a kinder, gentler Monroe Brothers or the Blue Sky Boys with more of an edge. A huge strength of this act is that their playing and their singing are totally complimentary, both in vitality and elegance. And while it’s risky to declare that any act has a distinctive sound, I’ll venture that Growling Old men has one, inspired by the hills of Appalachia, but informed by the plains and mountains of the West.

Guest musician David Thompson provides seamless bass playing and harmony vocals throughout. This album’s hardly chicken feed, so bale up some copies for yourself and maybe for some friends, too. (John Lowell, P.O. Box 743, Livingston, MT 59047,

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