Shaken By A Low Sound – Crooked Still
John Cohen wrote about Hobart Smith, "[He] was a man of the mountains, his music shaped by seven generations of musical Smiths…the music of the Appalachian Mountains long before the rise of the music industry." However this quote, Cohen's exegesis of Smith's ability to deeply read murder ballads, could just as easily be used to explain the music of Crooked Still, a quartet of twenty somethings from Boston.
Over the last few years publications like No Depression and New York Times, who are the linchpins on such things, have over-exuberantly praised the "new folk" movement. More often than not artists, such as Nickel Creek, the Duhks, Devendra Banhart, have received coffee house panegyrics; been latched on to for their hipness and trendiness in our nation’s recent eco-friendly upswing. But these acts aren’t folk in the way Cohen is referencing; entirely missing the ethnomusicological element lying innately in the genre.
Crooked Still's sophomore release, Shaken By A Low Sound features only one song less than thirty years old, with a brisk reading of Bob Dylan’s "Oxford Town." The rest, such as "Can’t You Hear Me Callin’"(Bill Monroe, by way of 1890’s Appalachia), "New Railroad," "Little Sadie," "Wind and Rain," and "Railroad Bill" are drawn directly from Hobart Smith’s well-spring (see the Lomax Collection, Hobart Smith: Blue Ridge Legacy). These are not bluegrass songs, or folk standards for that matter, but history.
It's in Crooked Still's approach, a confluence of cello, upright bass, banjo, and a less twangy Alison Krauss voice, that they are able to tell the whole history of these songs. They make them live, providing more than historically documented accounts, but stills and found recordings. Aoife O'Donovan sings about Little Sadie with her pistol going to town to shoot someone down, she does so with an acoustic maelstrom backing her. The cello and arco bass growl, vaguely reminiscent of Morphine, as Greg Liszt's banjo provides the anxiousness in Sadie's death dealing voice.
The emphasis should be on the growl. Smith, as Lomax noted, often down-tuned his fiddle, which provided the ominous counterpoint to his gravely voice. Rushad Eggleston's cello provides the same quality, but arguably more so, as his substantially larger instrument provides more body, more god-fearing temerity than even Smith's. Something as innocuous as "Cumberland Gap" becomes a drunken backwoods melody of deceit with a moonshine jug in your hand.
With moonshine on their breath, the band only slowly enters many of these songs, easing in to a ballad like "Ecstasy" or "Lone Pilgrim" with reluctance. They only provide enough of a melodic background for O'Donovan to whisper with honey dripped lyrics about God that she might regret saying out loud; as though the community will ostracize her. Then the band slowly increases their gait, with O'Donovan forced to make her opinions fully known. The stories are about regret and God's salvation, but are they? Are they now only a HOPE that these things will come, that God will save them. Only Liszt's rapid, multi-hand banjo playing provides possible hope in these relics, the rest of the band a swaying congregation of dissent.
But then folk music, as it really is, can straddle both sides. We feel sorrow for the bad man. We understand the regret and anger pointed towards a God unjust enough to plague a town with the black dust of the mine, just as much as we understand the plaintive cry for salvation. Folk music is the sound of the past, the sound of history; of American Poetry that Walt Whitman pined for. They tell the stories. They provide the past's headlines. Crooked Still's success is that they can unravel the threads of these more than 150 year old songs. They are able to tell the stories, to get to their core essence which the music industry has in obfuscated. Their success is in this illumination.