Review: The Spinney Brothers – Tried and True

My dairy farmer father rarely took vacations, but when he did he always chose destinations even more old-fashioned than the rock-bound NH farm we lived on. Usually that meant Amish country, but on one of his last and certainly longest trip, he took my mother and their loyal Plymouth on the ferry from Portland, Maine to Nova Scotia, arriving in a rural past more perfect than they could have imagined. The views of quaint coastal villages and the loam rich fields of Prince Edward Island must have activated Jungian memories of 16th century Devon or the lowlands of Scotland, this Canadian paradise they later confirmed with a cache of Kodachrome slides they beamed onto the living room door: tilled green fields, dense forests, stark white buildings and almost no people.

Then there was my grandfather’s second wife. Raised up against the Canadian border north of Colebrook, she was known to take a hand rake around the mowing, gathering up each wisp of hay the mechanical rake had missed, then calling the baler over to churn out that last half bale. When you entered her kitchen, you passed through an anteroom smelling of old harness leather, on into a space that was dark as the molasses bars she baked, called hermits, served with vanilla ice cream she kept half frozen in an ice cube tray squeezed into the freezer compartment of their old Kelvinator. When Maudetta (yes, that was her name) wanted music, she reached for her two favorites. Both were named Hank: Williams and Snow. This second Hank was not from Alabama, he was northern and even more country nasal sounding than his southern counterpart. He was Nova Scotian.

So it is no surprise that two contemporary Nova Scotians named Spinney (Allan and Rick) continue to look to the old rural south for inspiration. Bluegrass after all is proud of its tradition–even though, if you take Bill Monroe and his boys as its origin, the music’s only been around since the 40s, emerging from old time Anglo-Celtic music about the same time bop split from “traditional” jazz. We’ve heard so much Scruggs picking by now that it’s hard to remember his three finger roll was an innovation, just as Monroe’s hard-driving, fast-fingered, high holler music had taken the hand of Appalachian music and shoved its fore finger into an electric light socket.

But like quick-set cement for posts, tradition hardens quickly around a recognizable set of aesthetic norms, to provide an instantly recognizable and repeatable pleasure to its fans. Perhaps this is what the Spinney Brothers meant by the title of their last album, Tried and True. Here we find a guitar/banjo/ mandolin/bass quartet supporting the harmonizing voices of Rick and Allan Spinney. The album opens with a Scruggs picked ode to the musicians’ travelling life, “Ode to the Highway.” It is told from the point of view of a man mourning the necessity of being separated from his “fair flower,” Susannah, a faithful wife whose name recalls the muse of Stephen Foster’s minstrel ditty. The theme of idealized women continues with “Sweet Hazel Moore,” but in this case, the narrator’s beloved, also compared to a flower, “walks out the door.” Rather than wishing her a medieval execution (the subject of many an Anglo murder ballad), he continues to pine for the “love of his life.”

This theme of separation gets a little earthier in “Gonna Catch a Train (Leavin’ You Behind)” where the narrator departs his darling heading towards the “southland”—that appealing font of good southern music. “My Music Comes From Bill” continues in that direction, paying unquestioning homage to the patriarch of bluegrass music, as well as to Lester Flatt. The reverence for the patriarch continues in “She Doesn’t Mourn Anymore,” which paints a wistful picture of a centenarian grandmother whose dementia has freed her from the memory of her husband’s passing.

“Proud To Be Your Dad”

“The Mirror,” by young Eastern Canadian singer-songwriter Ryan Roberts, brings us to another familiar place—a church—but tells an interesting allegorical story of a preacher who holds a funeral for his dying, under-enrolled parish. When the townsfolk arrive for the “funeral,” they file by the casket to find not a body but a mirror inside, reminding them of their own spiritual death. “Proud To Be Your Dad,” a Rick Spinney original, also puts a fresh spin on an old subject, a father’s love for his son—a step-son, in this case. “Although I’m not your father, I’m so proud to be your Dad,” he sings. This might be the most genuine song on the album, possibly because the connection here is more personal. The next two songs, “I Wanna Walk With Jesus” and “How Much I’m Missing You,” are more standard fare, but “Freightyard Down the Street” by Edgar Loudermilk is a more interesting narrative of a boy who falls in love with and eventually marries the little girl he first sees wandering around her father’s freightyard. Lastly, “Choices” refers to a man taking responsibility for the sinful and erroneous decisions he has made previously, conscious choices he is now paying the price for.

The accompaniment throughout the album, featuring Terry Dalrymple on mandolin and Terry Poirier on bass, is full-bodied and competent, if unsurprising. It would be a good thing if a band this accomplished could push its stylistic boundaries a little on their next recorded outing.

Glen Herbert: Nicely done Jeff! Great piece.

Jeff Clapp

Jeff Clapp, a retired English prof and longtime guitar player, used to play regularly with the HVBA and now jams with various seagulls in South Portland ME.

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