Friday, June 17, 2011

Muleskinner - Live Original Television Soundtrack

I'm kind of a sucker for "lost bands," like The Flatlanders, and this is a doozy.  Legendary flatpicker Clarence White (of The Byrds fame), singer / songwriter Peter Rowan, mandolin virtuoso David Grisman, accomplished fiddler Richard Greene, and banjo man Bill Keith.  Even at the time, Muleskinner was something of a supergroup; White had been with the Byrds, Rowan, Greene, and Keith were former Bluegrass Boys, and Grisman had played with Red Allen, Del McCoury, and Jerry Garcia

The band is frankly inspiring.  White has a reputation as the godfather of acoustic flatpicking, and he shows it off on several of the tracks here, such as "I Am a Pilgrim."  Grisman is the most respected mandolinist alive, and while this is more conventional than some of his "Dawg music," he has no problem with "New Camptown Races" or "Opus in G Minor."  With so many talented pickers, Keith's banjo gets a bit of short shrift, but he still shows off some tasty melodic licks on tunes such as "The Dead March."  Rowan is really impressive here - he's maybe the greatest minor key singer in the bluegrass idiom, and he just nails it on folk tune "Red Rocking Chair" and his own epic, "Land Of the Navajo."  But Richard Greene is the revelation for me here.  Despite his extensive career I'd never heard of him before this project, and now that makes me feel like an idiot.  He's all over this album, and whether playing it straight in a old-time melody line in "The Eighth of January" or really creative, organic use of rhythms and slurs in "Blackberry Blossom" or some of both in blistering closer "Orange Blossom Special," he's incredible.

This album is more of a tease than anything else, showing what might have been if not for Clarence White's tragic death in a car accident.  The Live Original Television Soundtrack shows the skill of each of its members, but just scratches the surface of the inventiveness each would show through long careers.  Could they have been New Grass Revival, ten years earlier?  Could they have been Punch Brothers or The Infamous Stringdusters twenty-five years earlier?  Who knows.  Even if it doesn't show everything the group was capable of, this is still a fine album and a heck of a listen.

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