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On The String: A Bounty Of Acoustic Albums That Lean On Sound, Not Song

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From left, Wes Corbett, Andrew Marlin and Jeff Picker. All three have new instrumental bluegrass albums out.

For all the songs about mother, trains and cabins in the mountains, bluegrass has a tradition of instrumental music that goes back to its very origins. Bill Monroe’s first bands recorded mandolin and fiddle-driven tunes like “Tennessee Blues” and “Back Up And Push.” After Earl Scruggs joined in late 1945, his banjo instrumentals became a staple. Several generations of players embellished on those models, and a rush of new albums suggests that instrumental string band music is as dynamic as ever.

Just before Christmas, banjo player Wes Corbett issued Cascade, his debut as a composer/bandleader, featuring graceful, varied tunes with a crack ensemble playing the big five bluegrass instruments plus, on some tracks, the out-of-the-box hammered dulcimer. Last Fall, Jeff Picker released With The Bass In Mind, because the bass is what Picker picks, chiefly in the blazing bluegrass band Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. This work though nods to David Grisman’s jazz-leaning Dawg music and its offshoot the Tony Rice Unit. They’re both Nashville based, but from Chapel Hill, NC comes not one but two new tuneful 2021 discs from Andrew Marlin, the male half of star roots/folk duo Mandolin Orange. Witching Hour is a set of moody ruminations inspired by fatherhood, while Fable & Fire draws closer to the cyclical Celtic melodies that first infused the fiddle and mandolin into old-time and bluegrass in the first place.

STREAM THE STRING HERE...

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In Episode 161 of The String, Andrew Marlin says the times are ripe for wordless music. “Maybe there is just a collective mindset or need going on to step away from so much talking and so much use of the vocal cords, you know?” he says. “Everyone has a mouthpiece and everybody's using it. So I think to be able to speak instrumentally is actually much more unique these days, and especially to be able to craft that in a way where people can relate to it and draw some emotion and apply to their lives. I think that's needed.”

Craft is the right word when it comes to Marlin’s music. Though he didn’t take up mandolin until well into his 20s, his colleagues describe him as one of the most intuitive and tasteful musicians they know. Fans of Mandolin Orange’s understatement will relate to the patient sway of much of Witching Hour, kicking off with the gentle “Fireflies and Fairydust.” That and other titles here clearly relate to Ruby, first child of Marlin and wife Emily Franz, who is pictured on the cover and who’s been the focus of their lives in the quiet of the pandemic.

In an interview outtake, Marlin told me that writing music during his time with his infant daughter reflected the changes in his life at large. “I found a much more patient side of myself and a much more content side of myself, honestly. I think I've always had just a restless spirit that couldn't stay still for very long. And I feel like I'm still searching for all the things that I've ever searched for, but just in a much more patient way, you know, and I think I think the songs allude to that, and also kind of evoke that a little bit.”

Marlin is joined on the albums by guitarists Jordan Tice of Nashville and Josh Oliver, a member of the touring Mandolin Orange unit. Succulent and imaginative fiddling comes from Christian Sedelmyer, seen widely in the last few years as a member of the Jerry Douglas Band and Molly Tuttle’s touring group. He released his own fine instrumental opus Ravine Palace in mid 2020, featuring Marlin on mandolin as well as the bass player on both of Marlin’s new recordings, Clint Mullican. As always with successful sessions, the overwhelming sensation is musicians who listen to each other intently, following a plan but nimble enough to build out on that plan in real time. It’s hard to imagine a more prolific or productive work quarantine than Marlin’s has been.

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Wes Corbett’s Cascade is an homage to his home turf in Washington State’s Puget Sound and the mountain range there, as well as the genre fusion he heard in Bela Fleck’s recordings at age 14, an experience he calls “a lightning strike.” Corvett pivoted from serious youth schooling on the piano to the banjo and made his way in his 20s to Boston, where a vibrant scene was in full swing thanks to the music colleges there and the string band musicians partaking of a new openness to traditionally trained bluegrass-based artists making original music. It included Molly Tuttle, Jacob Jolliff, Tristan and Tashina Clarridge and more. Out of that Corbett formed The Bee Eaters, a refined and experimental chamber grass group and then Joy Kills Sorrow a flowing folk pop ensemble fronted by singer Emma Beaton. Eventually, Corbett moved to Nashville and last January, just before the big shutdown, he secured a coveted slot in the band of Sam Bush, the innovator who helped give newgrass its name and identity.

Cascade showcases compositions up to ten years old and draws directly on the ideas carried so far and fast by Fleck, Bush and their colleagues. Much of it rolls on the banjo over a two beat bounce provided by the bass, which is to say classic bluegrass structure. But with ample opportunities for the top-tier band to improvise and design stealthy transitions, it’s got the hallmarks of a fine jazz band of the 1960s. The pickers here are Chris “Critter” Eldridge of Punch Brothers, who co-produced with Corbett, Sierra Hull and Casey Campbell on mandolin, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, Paul Kowert on bass and in a few cases Corbett’s lifelong musical collaborator Simon Chrisman on hammered dulcimer. It’s a light feeling project that depends on some very challenging music made to look easy by some of the best in the business.

“I would call this record new acoustic music or newgrass,” Corbett says. “That music is the thing that I've identified most with since the very beginning, and having spent a fair amount of time playing with Darol Anger. And now also with Sam Bush, who is essentially the king of newgrass. That's just the music that's kind of in my blood, both vocally and instrumentally. And yeah, this record is my tip of the hat to that.”

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Jeff Picker, a native of Portland OR, was formally trained in jazz, with national fellowships to his credit, but he found conservatory work at the Manhattan School of Music stifling and moved nearby to finish his studies as a liberal arts major at Columbia. As he found gig work in New York, he was drawn into its small but lively bluegrass and acoustic scene, making a network that included star songwriter Sarah Jarosz. He toured with her for a couple of years, gaining national visibility. Now they’re in a relationship and living in Nashville. When a slot came up in Ricky Skaggs’s band, he got the tip from fiddler Mike Barnett, a close friend who’s on the new album. The music on his solo debut With The Bass In Mind doesn’t have much in common with Skaggs’s driving bluegrass, except for immaculate musicianship.

Barnett played fiddle at the Picker sessions in mid 2020 before suffering a terrible brain hemorrhage that profoundly interrupted one of the great modern string band careers. He is recovering and in therapy now. Also on the record, mandolinist Dominic Leslie, who was a celebrated teen virtuoso who’s done stints with the Deadly Gentlemen, The Infamous Stringdusters and his wife the songwriter Phoebe Hunt prior to his current tenure in Hawktail with Jordan Tice and Paul Kowert. Rounding out the quartet is guitarist Jake Stargell, who’s toured with Sierra Hull, Missy Raines and others.

“Instrumental music and songs need not be mutually exclusive,” Picker tells me. “I tried to write songs, just songs without words, you know? The elements of a good melody in an instrumental context are different than in a vocal context. Maybe they’re more complex from a technical standpoint. But they still have the power to move you and to entertain you.” The bass player expresses optimism that in a networked world, instrumental string band music, niche though it may be, can find the audience that cares about it or those who can be moved to care through exposure. “I don't delude myself into thinking that that's everybody. But there are people who want to hear it."