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Black Twig Pickers: Ironto Special

Though not as self-consciously mysterious as the Earl Brothers, Ironto, Virginia’s Black Twig Pickers (chiefly Nathan Bowles, Isak Howell and Mike Gangloff) are equally artful in occupying a place where time stopped around 1930 or 1940, or somewhere in between or thereabouts. They’re no more interested in being pretty or proper than are the Earls, but they do play with the same precision, passion and mystery and create something awesome and wondrous out of the songs of yore, which burst forth from their instruments with grace and intensity alike. The CD comes with a fold-out insert containing Gangloff’s erudite song-by-song notes (as well as tunings for each song) that blend his and his mates’ personal histories with observations on each tune's origins and evolution, with observations about characters they’ve met along the way from whom they have learned valuable lessons (musical and otherwise), and emphasizing the inextricable link between the land they love and the songs they play (“Water only flows out of Floyd County, Va., not into it, and that may be true of music too,” Gangloff writes in introducing the tangled trail of various “Walls of Jericho” incarnations; of “Ducks On the Pond,” he writes: “The landmarks that define the West Virginia-Virginia line at Glen Lyn are Appalachian Power’s coal-fired plant on the banks of the New River, and the cryptic and gorgeous fiddling of one-time power plant worker Henry Reed, who was fired for supporting the union.”) The Black Twig Pickers’ music is not so much earthy as it is of the earth. You may think you have heard this or that group sounding like the Pickers, but you haven’t—beyond the elegant, synergistic instrumental conversations they have with each other, beyond the old-timey ethos, these fellows have an energy about them, a glow, that comes from surrendering themselves completely to the moment they are making music together. What they do is nigh on to indescribable, so organic and soulful is it. Music without guile, music with a heart to match the beauty of the Appalachians the Pickers call home. What was it God said to Moses? “I am that I am”? Well, the Black Twig Pickers are what they are.

Well, maybe we’re getting a bit far afield here. However, you don’t have to believe the group is divinely anointed in order to be swept away by its jubilant attack on songs new and old. A song such as “Last Payday at Coal Creek” is, as Gangloff says in his notes, at least a century old but also “a song for recent times, definitely,” and in the hoarse, ragged vocal and roaring ensemble sprint spurred by Bowles’s intense banjo picking you hear the undercurrent of desperation fueling the anxious ambiance. On a lighter note, a Pickers’ original tune, “Smoker Wedding March,” written a few years ago for a friend’s wedding, is a simply, joyous fiddle-and-chopsticks piece. Yes, fiddle and chopsticks, with Bowles tickling the strings of Gangloff’s fiddle with recurring glissando riffs as the latter bows a bright, buoyant melody. On the rhythmic juggernaut that is “Fire On The Mountain” (a tune handed down from the Pine River Boys and its superb fiddler, Walter Morris), the musicians march relentlessly ahead with such exuberance as to elicit whoops and hollers audible on the track as Gangloff tears into the ebullient melody and Bowles adds to the mix the infectious clatter of a washboard. Going out on a high note, the Pickers offer a song of truly ancient derivation, “Rocking In a Weary Land,” described by Gangloff in his notes as a “creaky fiddle tune” (and he proceeds to wrench the melody out of his own laboring instrument), but one which also benefits from the spooky atmospherics infusing its hymn-like mood courtesy the low moan of Charlie Parr’s baritone resonator 12-string guitar. Only on the surface do the Black Twig Pickers sound like any other band. What lies beneath the music but is revealed in the expressive discourse among the players is the elusive grail, the ethereal moment when the music and the musicians are one and the same, inseparable and inviolate, world without end. Amen.

-- David McGee, The Bluegrass Special