Banjo Maven Jayme Stone Brings Colorful, Obscure Folk Music Treasures to Lincoln Center
Banjo player Jayme Stone is on a mission to get his instrument into everything: classical music, film music, big band jazz – as a featured instrument rather than simply part of the rhythm section – and rock. He writes and plays fluently in all those styles, but lately he’s been revisiting a lot of playful, entertaining and sometimes pretty grim folk songs from across the centuries. If you enjoy the inimitable sound of Stone’s axe, and you’re a morning person, you can see him play songs from his exhaustive new nineteen-track album with an all-star crew he calls the Lomax Project at the Lincoln Center Atrium on April 4 at 11 (eleven) AM. That’s right, before lunch.
Stone raided the Alan Lomax archives for every track on the record, a characteristically eclectic mix of oldtime Americana, blues, murder ballads, gospel hollers and even songs from the Caribbean. The first eight tracks are streaming at Bandcamp.
The band is just plain sensational: along with Stone, the core of the group is Crooked Still’s Brittany Haas on fiddle, Tim O’Brien on guitar, Greg Garrison on bass and Margaret Glaspy on vocals, with cameos from several other usual suspects from the top tier of Americana. The sound of the album is refreshingly organic – everything sounds like it was cut live, which makes sense considering the music’s origins. What’s more, Stone and the band aren’t afraid to inject their own personalities into the material: while it wouldn’t be accurate to call their versions irreverent, everything here has a lively, off-the-cuff flavor. It’s like what you’d hear at Roots & Ruckus on a Wednesday night at the Jalopy.
The opening track is a Lomax rarity, and a wry joke: it’s a vamping, vaguely 19th century two-chord number that sounds like a “git down, hoss” farm song from, say, south Texas. The legendary Library of Congress musicologist and archivist apparently felt he’d given himself enough of an immersion to take up writing fake folk songs, predating the 50s folk revival by a couple of decades.
O’Brien sings and flatpicks a gospel-tinged Nashville gothic tune, and a little later duets with Glaspy on a slowly waltzing take of the old standard Goodbye Old Paint. Glaspy’s tenderly airy reinvention of Shenandoah is an eye-opener. Stone’s taste in gospel here runs to starkly haunting rather than celebratory, best evidenced by the What Is the Soul of Man, Glaspy sharing vocals with Bruce Molsky; Julian Lage and Joe Phillips add terse guitar and bass, respectively. One exception is a hymn from the island of Curriacou, Glaspy delivering it with a lighthearted, bluesy lilt. What a long way she’s come since her long-running residency at Pete’s Candy Store
She and Molsky leave no doubt that Now Your Man Done Gone – which Muddy Waters used as a basis for Baby Please Don’t Go – is a prisoner’s lament. Moira Smiley lends her clear, affecting voice to a clever, playfully swaying curio dating from fifteenth century England. The rest of the album bounces, waltzes and sometimes trudges along as barnyard animals misbehave, couples break up, a handful of people get killed, lots of jokes are told and in an unexpectedly successful attempt at calypso, an executioner becomes the target of a murder-for-hire plot. How’s that for karma? The cd comes with a fascinating 48-page booklet explaining the songs’ origins.