Jayme Stone’s latest project is a big one: over the course of 19 tracks he pays tribute to song collector and musicologist Alan Lomax, who would have been 100 this year. Lomax has had more influence on folk and roots music than most of us know, and then some. Stone has gathered a fantastic group of musicians to survey all the corners of the musical world that, at one time or another, attracted Lomax’s attention, from the hollows of Appalachia to the Caribbean.
Stone is a banjo player, though what has really been the hallmark of all of his work isn’t banjo so much, but rather a curiosity about music. He is typically lumped in with the newgrass players—Fleck, Trischka—and there are reasons for that. He uses the banjo for lots of things, though he’s less conspicuous about that than others. It’s never about flash; it’s always about music.
There is a recording of John Hartford during a recording session giving direction and he says, “This is not going to be a showstopper. I want to do this like it was ‘Brushy Fork of John’s Creek.’ I want it to be straight ahead, where it leads us to the music and not tricky.” Stone can play tricky, though even at his most complex or most reaching, that could be his motto: he wants what he is doing to lead us to the music.
The Lomax Project is that in spades. There are lots of very familiar songs here, such as “Shenandoah,” though he doesn’t rely on typical arrangements. In the notes that accompany the disc, Stone writes that his aim is to harness “the unexpected chemistry of collaboration and [make] music that’s informed by tradition but not bound to it.” It’s a fine balance, and where others might try to adopt that kind of approach, Stone truly does. You need to go with it a bit, as with “Shenandoah,” given that it’s so familiar that any adjustments can feel artificial or forced. “Goodbye, Old Paint” in particular isn’t perhaps as successful as some of the other tracks.
But, even if some things might work a bit better than others, it’s true that everything on this disc is interesting. It doesn’t hurt that Stone collaborating with some of the best, including Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Julian Lage, Margaret Glaspy and Brittany Haas. Molsky’s “Julie and Joe” is gorgeous, marrying two traditional tunes, “Julie Ann Johnson” and “Old Joe Clark,” the second done here in a minor key rather than the typical major, and drawing on a Cajun style of fiddling. It’s one of those tracks that you get stuck on, playing again and again.
The variety of songs is wonderful, and the disc includes an acapella call and response work song, “Sheep, Sheep don’t you Know the Road,” and a calypso piece, “Bury Boula for Me” featuring Drew Gonsalves. There’s a charming song, “T-I-M-O-T-H-Y” that apparently was collected by Lomax in the Dutch Antilles. It features Tim O’Brien and Moira Smiley. Did I say it was charming? When you listen to it, you’ll see what I mean.
There is a lot on this recording, and there is a lot in the package, too, including two essays as well notes on each of the songs. All of it is absolutely welcome. No, it isn’t a bluegrass album, and despite Stone’s name on the cover, it’s not a banjo album. It’s an album of really beautiful music.