By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The progression from fashion to cliché to authenticity is an inherently long, laborious process. But listening to Norman Blake and Peter Ostroushko, one finds it difficult to imagine they resent the journey. The recording sessions that yielded Meeting on Southern Soil began three days after the release of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which would make clean-pickin' "mountain music" an anti-Britney fashion statement for folks numbed by the steady buzz of pop culture. Beyond dropping a few extra coins in our protagonists' pockets, however, the happenstance isn't likely to faze two musicians who snagged a tradition by the tail decades ago, and have been pulling themselves, hand-over-hand, song-by-song, deeper into its roots ever since.
The Coens, with their farcical sensibility, would get a kick out of diddling with the moonshine stereotypes that this collection invokes. After all, it includes a rendition of "Rise When the Rooster Crows" that Blake learned off a 78-rpm recording by the Binkley Brothers Dixie Clodhoppers; a rejection of a father's remarriage entitled "I Cannot Call Her Mother"; and a few other evocative tunes from the public domain--"The Old Hickory Cane" and "The Little Log Hut in the Lane"--that were also culled from 78s. But the musical purity of purpose turns these hillbilly clichés into antique treasure.
Blake and Ostroushko fuse the pastoral beauty and plainspoken, hardscrabble existence of the old American South with a taciturn artistry that's actually accentuated by the strangled range and doleful tenor of their vocals. Widely regarded as one of the two or three best flat-pickers (on guitar and mandolin) on earth, Blake showcases a style here that is built for discomfort, not for speed. His pristine, deliberate notes set a tone of somber grief and humble reverence on "Little Bessie"--a Baptist hymn about the death of a child ascending into the arms of Jesus. And they provide a spare and noble backdrop for the wistful remembrance of a storytelling father on "The Old Hickory Cane."
Blake also produces sublime accompaniment when Ostroushko takes flight on the fiddle. (Though they met at the Whole Coffeehouse on the University of Minnesota campus 28 years ago, the pair have never before collaborated on a record.) Blake's backing is especially keen on the four tracks when the duo is joined by Blake's wife, cellist Nancy Blake. These include "Chickamauga" (an Ostroushko original commemorating a bloody Civil War battle in the hills of Georgia) and a sardonic little ditty in honor of Richard Nixon (also penned by Ostroushko).
But the musical revelation of Southern Soil is how capably Ostroushko holds his own and meshes with Blake's formidable talents. The native Minnesotan's seven prior CDs for Red House chronicle the enormous growth that has brought him to this pairing. Nevertheless, it is stunning to hear the two pick out tapestries so rich with nuance and mutual sensitivity. In perhaps the only colloquial conceit on Southern Soil, Blake begins one such picking session by asking, "Say, Pete, you know that ol' Missouri tune called 'Muddy Creek'?" "I sure do," Ostroushko replies, with a mountain twang. "Let's play 'er." They then burst into a joyful braid of notes that sounds like a resonant, precocious nursery rhyme. Another primer for the ages.