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Published: 2001/10/19
by Jesse Jarnow

Shifting Sands of Time – The Wayfaring Strangers

Rounder Records 11661-0484-2

"I'm looking for a Ralph Stanley song," my mother told me the last time I went to her apartment for dinner.

"Man of Constant Sorrow," I said, answering before she could ask.

"That's right! How did you know?" she queried.

"It's on the 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack," I replied. "It's really popular. Everybody's getting really into old-tyme music these days." "Oh, no," she said. "This one was jazz." It rang a bell, though it took a moment to click that it wasn't the "O Brother" soundtrack she was looking for. I'd heard the version she was looking for, it just hadn't really occurred to me that it might be labeled as jazz. It was the second track on a new record produced by violinist and arranger Matt Glaser with an outfit calling themselves The Wayfaring Strangers, one of those bluegrass supergroups with a ridiculously incredible lineup including mandolinist Andy Statman, banjoist Tony Trischka, with vocal turns by the likes of Lucy Kaplansky, Jennifer Kimball, and others. "This record… picks up a thread of spirituality — non-denominational but full of yearning for an infinite, unbounded world of perfect peace," Glaser writes in the liner notes. "Shifting Sands of Time" works for all the reasons why many younger bluegrass-fusion bands don't: Glaser is willing to embrace the possibility of void, the space behind and beyond all the long and lonely road metaphors employed in the typical language of bluegrass lyrics. While it fuses bluegrass and jazz (an old-hat concept that usually ends up sounding like wretched hippie crap in practice), it does so on a deeply timbral level that goes beyond most so-called newgrass.

It is more than a juxtaposition of styles, it is an acknowledgment that both
genres come – on some level – from the same source: the blues (as Glaser
points out in the his notes). It is not that jazz and bluegrass necessarily
sound the same, but that there is a similar element of emotion that
the musicians must channel in order to force their fingers across the frets,
to force air into the horns.

As with any attempt at something new, the music sounds contrived in places, often to purposefully heavy such that it comes off sounding lite; spirituality for the NPR set. For those who love the spirit of bluegrass and gospel, but are put off by the wrath of a vengeful God, "Shifting Sands of Time" is perfectly contemplative agnostic treat.

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