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Black Twig Pickers and Charlie Parr: Glory in the Meeting House

2010 – House of Mercy Recordings


            The threads of many of these songs go back at least a couple of centuries, despite various musicians changing and adapting them to suit their own particular set of needs. Fairly obviously we will never know what the originals sounded like and yet I don’t think they would or could have sounded much different to the versions on this incredible album! The album helps to define where ‘old-time’ (or ‘hillbilly’) music and the ‘blues’ were in the days before commerce and the recording industry took over and separated them for ever. Whilst the songs are predominately on the gospel side of blues, the history books tell us that there was very little difference between the music played by the poor black people and the poor whites; in fact many of the early ‘old-time’ players actually got started by being taught songs and how to play their instruments by black men steeped in their version of folk music (i.e. the blues or ‘Race music’ as it was known then). The untutored rasping vocals of Charlie Parr are evocative of the days when people played music in the villages and farms of the Appalachians purely for their own and their neighbours pleasure, after all, music was their only escape from the grinding poverty that they found themselves in. Basically the feel of the music was far more important than ‘perfect pitch’ so anyone could play regardless of talent.
           Charlie Parr is a master of Banjo and National steel resonator guitar, added to which is his rasping full of character vocals, whilst the Twig Pickers who are made up of Isak Howell, Nathan Bowles and Mike Gangloff between them play fiddle, guitar, banjo, washboard and of course vocals. There are several instrumentals, such as the opening track, the traditional, eerie fiddle tune Glory in the meeting house and the beautifully played resonator guitar on the also traditional What a friend we have in Jesus. There is the glorious classic stringband tune of Old ark’s a-movin’ and the front porch, old-time evoking fiddle tune of I’m going home. Some great instrumentals, but the songs are as good with Charlie dragging every drop of feeling out of his straining vocals to give all of these mainly traditional tunes the respect and atmosphere they deserve. The Rev. J. M. Gates scary Death’s black train is probably as frightening as the Reverend himself intended it to be, with the sinister sounding fiddle, harmonica, jews harp and national resonator driving the song along. I wish I was in heavan sitting down Is mainly just Charlie and his resonator and has the harrowing sound of a man broken by the struggles in this life and longing for his place in heavan. Every song is played as if they really mean it, which, indeed they do. This is classic old time string band music that was actually recorded in a shed in Ironto, Virginia early this year. 
            A tremendous album that opens the door a little to give us an authentic sounding sample of where these songs were at the dawn of the commercial recording age in the early twentieth century, but without all the crackles and pops! Charlie is a true master of this music and I suspect that the Black Twig Pickers will turn out to be the same. It is no coincidence that the title of the Twig Pickers new album is ‘Ironto special’. (see above) I’ve just got my copy and am about to play it, so all I need now is for my copy of Charlies new album ‘When the Devil goes blind’ to arrive and they should keep me happy for a few days at least! If you have any interest at all in hearing where ‘country music/blues/gospel’ came from buy this album; you won’t regret it.

-- American Roots UK