The energetic and tight conversation between Tatiana Hargreaves’ fiddle and Allison DeGroot’s clawhammer banjo on the tune “Eighth of January” struck me immediately. Continuing on my listening journey, I realized, at some point, that this whole recording is driven by only voice, fiddle and banjo. There’s not a guitar in sight. That should tell you something about the mojo of these two fine musicians. A driving and focused duet sound is maintained throughout this recording.
Speaking as a fiddler, there’s nothing here that I don’t like. I like the attention to certain nuances of the tunes that Tatiana and Allison have mined from the original source recordings and now build upon to create their own memorable interpretations and improvisations. Their versions of “Cuckoo’s Nest” or “Farewell Whiskey,” for example, will not fail to entertain.
“Beaufort County Jail”
There is a variety of both early recording/archival source material alongside more contemporary sources. Tatiana and Allison have selected an interesting body of songs and tunes that not only sounds good together, but also serves their creative and social vision. A song like Alice Gerrard’s “Beaufort County Jail” tells the story of a young black woman assaulted while in prison and speaks to issues of racism, sexual abuse and the violence of incarceration. They have chosen tunes from midwestern fiddlers like Lyman Enloe and Violet Hensley; black musicians Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson; and female banjoist Matokie Slaughter as examples of the regional, age, gender and racial diversity of their sources.
The accompanying promotional information I received offered two challenging quotes:
“two artists on the leading edge of a generation of old-time players who are questioning old narratives, and acknowledging the diversity that has always existed in the genre”;
“We are part of a generation that is questioning our roles within systems of power and in regards to old-time music–questioning our place and privilege within a music that is based in working class, largely rural, southern America: Black, Indigenous and white.”
It might be useful to know what “old narratives” they want to critique. There is the risk of being ahistorical or denying agency to previous generations when making rather sweeping statements. Issues of class, race and gender identity cross generations and are nothing if not continuing struggles. These distinctions also become blurred upon closer scrutiny of individuals who have made significant contributions to American stringband music– not to mention the decades of influx between urban and rural musicians and the migration history of different racial and ethnic populations within the United States.
I think these are great young musicians striving to stimulate important conversations about a very messed up world, and they want to establish their place and identity in that world. I’m down with that. The willingness to embrace important social and historical issues is a great place to spur artistic creativity and offers insights to a shared history and humanity. Ultimately, the best artist knows that real truths resonate in their work. The deepest beauty, artistry and message from old songs and tunes was placed there years ago by someone we never knew, but they are communicating with us still. Tatiana and Allison have every reason to continue that legacy, and this recording will be an important contribution.
Free Dirt Records