Given that the last record this western Virginia combo made was with their soon-to-depart pal Jack Rose, it’d be awfully easy to hear it through a cheesecloth veil of sentimentality; easy, and wrong. The Black Twig Pickers don’t want your tears, they want to hear your dancing shoes clomping on the floorboards, and you’ll only be doing yourself a favor if you oblige. Depending on your tastes, Ironto Special might even nose out Jack Rose & The Black Twig Pickers. It lacks Rose’s virtuoso turns, but it’s better recorded, with a woody depth to match their enduring steel-string ring, and their playing benefits from the three-dimensional representation.
Nathan Bowles, who previously stuck mostly to washboard and bones, has developed his clawhammer banjo technique to the point where Mike Gangloff plays more fiddle than banjo. The bright strikes of their picks on planks and bow on strings rings out over Isak Howell’s briskly strummed guitar; the breadth of their sound feels as big as a dance hall, and the certitude of rhythms indicates that their monthly booking at the Floyd Country Store’s Friday night dance is an act of good sense, not mercy.
The Twigs may have gotten better at playing and recording, but they haven’t gotten too slick. The record is split between instrumentals, both band originals and well-loved traditionals like “Bonaparte’s March Into Russia,” and songs that all three guys holler out with plenty of exuberance and a minimum of polish. Everything on this record was recorded live in a shed where the Black Twigs have been playing for years, and the performances exude a casual confidence. This music feels lived-in, and like a part of life.
Rose’s work with the Twigs grew out of his relationship with Gangloff; they’d played together in Pelt since the early ’90s. But it also reflects the Twigs’ practice of playing with all comers, from visiting pals like Charlie Parr, who contributes resonator 12-string guitar to one track here, to Clayton Hall, the uncle of former Twig Ralph Berrier and a man who played with people who have played this music since before WWII.
The Black Twig Pickers are part of a real community. It’s one for which old time music isn’t just a quaint old thing but part of the fabric of their everyday lives, be they long-time practitioners or unrepentant punks who haven’t thrown out their Minutemen t-shirts.
By Bill Meyer