Review: Adam Steffy – New Primitive

The first track on Adam Steffey’s new album New Primitive opens with a pop music flourish of a kind that you don’t typically find on oldtime albums. It’s a statement that this isn’t just another album of traditional tunes. Rather, this one is going to rock.

It’s his third solo project and one that Steffey says he’s been hoping to do for some time— namely to record some of old time tunes that are rooted in the musical history of Appalachia. All the pieces here are traditional ones that have been handed down in the traditional way, from player to player over the course of generations.

That’s how Steffey learned them too, and his pedigree for this material is as good as it gets: his maternal grandfather was Tom Carter, a cousin of A. P. Carter of Carter Family fame. In the liner notes that accompany this CD Steffey writes of Tom Carter that, “he was … a midwife/country doctor, of sorts. My grandfather (Fred Carter) once told me that the first time he heard a phonograph record was when A.P. Carter brought a phonograph over and played the records of the first Carter Family sessions that they had recorded in Bristol.”

“New Five Cent Piece”

He adds, “This music is something that is very dear to me and I count myself very blessed to have grown up in the East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia area. Having been allowed to hear and perform with so many terrific musicians from this area has made me the musician that I am.”

It was at The Carter Fold in Hiltons, VA, the home place of The Carter Family, that Adam first heard this kind of music. It is a place that still has traditional music every Saturday night and where Steffey occasionally performs. He has taken it around the US, and around the world, and traditional music could scarcely have a better ambassador. Steffey is a Grammy winner and IBMA mandolin player of the year … nine times. For a time he was a member of Alison Kraus’ band, Union Station, and has recorded with everyone from James Taylor to his own award winning band, the Boxcars.

But on this CD he mixes things up a bit; he returns to his roots, though he does it with an energy and an enthusiasm that is infectious. Some of the tunes are well known, such as “Cluck Old Hen” and “Raleigh and Spencer.” Others are a bit more esoteric to listeners less steeped in the Appalachian traditions. All sound absolutely fresh and alive. This recording isn’t a museum of old tunes, but rather a vehicle for Steffey to pay homage and also have a lark with some of the material that is so familiar to him.

Here he also presents the Snyder Family Band—a group that we’ve profiled in these pages—in a way that they’ve been featured before. Zeb Snyder plays guitar throughout, and absolutely tears it up on the faster tunes, such as “Chinquapin Hunting.” He’s coming into his own as a guitar player, just as his sister, Samantha, is as a fiddle player and singer. This CD includes a gorgeous vocal track featuring Samantha, “Who Now Will Sing Me Lullabies.” Her voice has matured even since her last recording with the Family Band, “Building Bridges” which was released this year.

Organic Records

Glen Herbert

Glen Herbert is a writer, editor and amateur musician. He lives in Burlington, Ontario.

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