Charming. Deeply charming. That is the essence of this full-length debut by Bill and the Belles, Dream Songs, Etc. Here is a disarming sweetness, a wistful recollection of a by-gone era, a sound that goes back to the earliest days of the 20th century (and even before). Bill and the Belles—a quartet consisting of Kris Truelsen on guitar, Kalia Yeagle on fiddle, Grace Van’t Hof on banjo, and Karl Zerfas on bass—evoke and create a unique form of American acoustic music. This is music from a time before bluegrass. It recalls the parlor songs of the late nineteenth century that dominated American popular music before the advent of the recorded music industry.
Bill and the Belles hail from the same neck of the woods as their namesakes: Bill and Belle Reed, a pair of musicians who recorded 90 years ago in Johnson City, TN, and were salvaged from obscurity by their inclusion in the famous eclectic 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, affectionately known as the Harry Smith collection. Whereas Bill and Belle Reed (“Old Lady and the Devil”) sound like they are singin’ and pickin’ in the kitchen, Bill and the Belles have a polish and sophistication that evokes the music hall or vaudeville stage rather than the back porch. The standard instrumentation of the group might readily be deployed for bluegrass, however the guest musicians (Evan Kinney on accordion and Aaron Olwell on clarinet), reveal the true intent. Above this rich instrumental landscape soar vocal harmonies that would make the Andrews Sisters proud. If you’ve ever tried your hand at candy making you will recognize that there is a considerable degree of craft and precision that goes into making a confection as sweet, light and airy as this.
The arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, are incredibly precise, yet the spontaneity and joy of their music making is always apparent. Kris has a crooner’s vocal control and inflection. It is gentle, sweet and seductive like Rudy Vallee, with a crisp articulation and enunciation that sounds almost British rather than Appalachian. Meanwhile, his guitar has plenty of Jimmie Rogers-type runs punctuating phrases just at the right moment. Kalia and Grace complement, contrast, or envelop the melody with their beautiful vocal harmonies. Sometimes they even break into little bits of banter as in “Finger Pointin’ Mama” and “Oh Johnny Oh.” The quality of the sound recording is well-balanced and intimate so that the blend is always full yet you can hear the numerous fine details as they arise. All these elements are on full display on the lead single, “Wedding Bell Chimes.” And do yourself a favor by finding the accompanying music video—it’s truly winning and will leave you smiling. This group of young talented musicians is fastidious in re-creating (and creating—half the songs are credited to Kris Truelsen) a sound that is distinctive—a narrow, precise niche that has a lot of charm. If Garrison Keillor were still running A Prarie Home Companion, Bill and the Belles would be a shoo-in, perhaps even the house band.
Bill and the Belles are very successful in capturing the character of the music and the particulars of the genre. Much less apparent is the personality of the musicians themselves either in the songwriting or the performances. Indeed, the band name itself obscures them (there is neither a Bill nor even a single Belle). A happy exception to this is the fiddle playing of Kalia Yeagle which is featured in solos on almost every song and overflows ever so delightfully the carefully crafted boundaries of the material, as on the opening track, “Hum Your Troubles Away.” She also imparts a rich blues sensibility on songs like “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues” with its satisfying interplay of fiddle, accordion and clarinet. Indeed, it might have made for a welcome instrumental number at that point in the album.
Bill and the Belles come from the same stretch of mountains that nurtured the Carter Family and Doc Watson, artists who revolutionized American music, but who grew up with and never lost affection for precisely the kind of music that you will find on “DreamSongs, Etc.”
Bill and the Belles hearken back to a period even before the rise of hillbilly and race records. This is not the “old, weird America” as Greil Marcus famously termed the music collected by Harry Smith. This is the “sweet, gentle America.”