This is a very satisfying release. The theme is music from 150 years ago, a sort of “hit” list from those days. There, of course, was a great bit of turmoil in our land at that time, but the music is imbued with a grace that was probably as cathartic then as it is today. Johnson’s banjo playing is impeccable as he flows through these tunes. His trademark bright tone and note-rich style is present as he plays in his highly identifiable style known as clawgrass.
Most of the songs and tunes here are well-known. While the version of “Chinquapin Hunting” is an unusual one, many of the other tunes—such as “Soldier’s Joy,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” and a pair of Stephen Foster tunes (“Angeline The Baker” and “Hard Times”)—are widely known. Emory Lester provides fine mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and bass (in essence, the rest of the band) and does a fine job of supporting and adding counter vocals to Johnson’s banjo. The tunes are varied not only in pace, but also by the use of several different lead instruments. On “Soldier’s Joy,” Johnson overdubs banjo to churn up a nearly frenetic ending to a very spritely tune. There are two interesting original tunes from Johnson, “Blockade Runner At Cedar Key” and “Mosby’s Rangers.” His use of fretless banjo on “Blockade Runner…” results in stylistic tweaks to his playing that make his performance shine. There is a depth to these tunes that draws the listener in while providing a subtlety of pace to a program of otherwise familiar material.
This recording sets a mood that is, at once, pensive and congenial with the flow of tension, and its release not only found in the tunes themselves, but also in the pacing and performances by these two masterful musicians. Lester is quite accomplished on the array of instruments he plays here. Johnson is one of, if not the, leading practitioner of melodic clawhammer banjo playing, which he chooses to call clawgrass. Call it what you will, it makes for great listening. (Bangtown Records, P.O. Box 3335, Dunnellon, FL 34432, www.clawgrass.com.)RCB