CD Reviews

TOM BROSSEAU & SEAN WATKINS: In the Shadow of the Hill

The Carter Family made their first recording 93 years ago and, to quote, they were “the most influential group in country music history.” Tom Brousseau pays his respects to these giants on his new album with Sean Watkins, In the Shadow of the Hill: Songs from the Carter Family Catalogue, Vol I. The folk performer gathers nine tracks that are off the beaten track (the Carters recorded over 300 sides) from the treasury of traditional music and originals collected by A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and sister-in-law, Maybelle. These people from the Virginia hills were the first group admitted to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the first to popularize vocals to bluegrass tunes, and Maybelle’s guitar picking style was the basis for most subsequent folk and country playing.

While the Carters are well known for many songs, Brousseau has curated some lesser known tunes here, and sings and plays guitar in a stripped down, reverent manner appropriate to the material. Sean Watkins (who recorded and produced) contributes harmony vocals and guitar, Sara Watkins sings and adds violin, Dominique Arciero provides vocals, while Tristan Clarridge plays cello.

“Jealous Hearted Me” opens, as nicely picked acoustic guitars turn back the clock and Brousseau sings the lead with lovely harmonies adding punch. Six of the nine tracks date back to the original Carter family recordings from 1926 to 1941, but three others are included from Joe and Janette Carter, who represent a second-generation version of the family, including Joe’s “Kitty and I,” which features Sara’s fiddle embellishments, hand claps, and an early bluegrass vibe that is instantly endearing. The traditional “Chewing Gum” dates back to around 1890 and here it is rendered with tasty guitar lines adding a nice touch, as Brousseau sings lines like: “I wouldn’t have a doctor/ I’ll tell you the reason why/ He rides all over the country/ And makes the people die.”

Several of the songs are built on 3/4 waltz rhythms, like the ballad “Give Me Your Love and I’ll Give You Mine,” which is wonderfully realized with fiddle picking, cello, and lilting harmonies. Another song with a more elaborate arrangement is Joe Carter’s “Through the Eyes of an Eagle,” which manages a saga of Native Americans, as well as the tale of the move west with the gold rush, and even the big ’06 earthquake. It is different than most of the songs here but a highlight, with great support from Tristan’s cello and Sara’s violin. Much of the same vibe is found in “Where the Silver Colorado Wends Its Way,” the next song in the program, though recorded much earlier by the AP Carter group: “The silver snow is gleaming/ On your distant mountainside/ Where often used to wander Nell and I/ And the birds are singing gaily/ In the valley far below/ Where I long some day to lay me down and die.”

For acoustic country and folk music lovers who value what has come before, Tom Brousseau and Sean Watkins’ new disc is a must-have and a great listen.