“If You Want To Go To Sleep, Go To Bed”. Is the title of the new cd by banjoist Hunter Robertson and fiddler Casey Joe Abair. And it is obviously a work that involved a lot of late nights for a long time before any recording equipment was ever set up. When the players know each other well, and have put in many hours together, fiddle and banjo duets can catch fire, producing an event that is more than the sum of the two instruments. Abiar and Robertson obviously know each other well and know how to throw ideas back and forth in a way that brings the listener a new insight into the music. If that all sounds a bit “classical”, well perhaps it is. The banjo fiddle combination is does not have the full sound of a string band, it is more like a chamber group, where the communication between instruments and players is more important than a full group sound. Listeners can really hear the two instruments because they differ in range, timbre, attack, sustain, and so many other ways. It is almost as if the fiddle and banjo go so well together because they have so little in common.
Banjo and fiddle is also one of the most exacting and dangerous combinations to record. Unlike a full band, fiddle and banjo will not cover mistakes for each other. Each player is fully responsible for every note he produces. This is not music for players who need the safety net of guitar and bass.
The selection of tunes is heavily weighted toward the old tunes played with the fire and enthusiasm they really deserve but seldom get these days, but there are some less common tunes that work beautifully in the duet setting. their “The Devil’s Dream” is from Hobart Smith and very different than the one I play. It is actually considerably more “band” friendly and the tune is closer to John Brown’s Dream.
“Fort Smith Breakdown” doesn’t show up on many jam lists but is a super tune from a 1920s recording by Luke Highnight’s Ozark Strutters. Here Robertson is playing a fretless Harmony ResoTone in Old G (gDGDE) tuning. “Run Slave Run” uses the same tuning and probably the same banjo.
“Hog Eye Man” aka “Sally In The Garden” is frequently played crooked, but Abair and Thompson seem to have found a whole new crooked way to do it. I’m going to try it out, but I won’t attempt to show it to my jam groups.
Some of the selections are great “trance” tunes where the two instruments seem to float around the melody passing it back and forth until you feel it has been the background music to your entire life. I was very surprised to read that “Tater Patch” and “Sandy River Belle” were each only about four minutes, as was their rendition of “Sail Away Ladies”
The album is Yodel-Ay-Hee number 74, and you can order it direct from Hunter Robertson’s website: http://www.hunterrobertson.com, where you can also watch videos of Abair and Robertson, and even buy a copy of Robertson’s solo album “Hunter Robertson Sings Songs For The Masses.”
“Here’s a quick review for an excellent new cd i received a few days ago. Under the evocative title “If you want to sleep, go to bed” (A saying by banjo-player Charlie Lowe, who was a major figure of the Round Peak old-time musical tradition and who liked his music fast…) it contains almost exclusively fiddle and banjo duets by two young musicans, Casey Joe Abair and Hunter Robertson. The fine art of fiddle and banjo duets is the core of american old-time music and the two musicians gives us an excellent and energetic selections of instrumental tunes, some well-known, some more obscure, along with a few old-timey songs sung in the expressive and rough vocal style of banjo player Hunter Robertson. The contrast with the delicate voice of his wife Fereale who join him on three numbers makes a delightful combination (it reminds me of some Blind Willie Johnson numbers where the rough street singer sings with a woman).
An elegant and tasty packaging along with some fine liner notes (the source and tunings are provided for each track) to boot makes this cd a must-have for every fan of authentic and deep appalachian old-time music.
Go to Hunter Robertson’s website to hear some samples of it. You can order the cd directly from the website or from various places like ITUNES, AMAZON, ELDERLY…”
“The title quotes the wisdom of old-time banjo player Charlie Lowe of North Carolina. The message: if you don’t like lively music, get lost. Though Lowe is long gone, Casey Joe Abair (fiddle) and Hunter Robertson (banjo, lead vocals) carry on the fiery tradition of Southern mountain music. Neither man, however, is a Southern musician. Abair hails from Vermont, where the California-born Robertson was living when this was recorded. Since this past May he has resided in France.
Robertson’s music came into my life with his striking Songs for the Masses (a tongue-in-cheek title if ever there was one). I reviewed it in this space on 5 July 2008. Masses was not just another accomplished oldtime-revival album but something that sounded as if delivered intact (but for the rare electric guitar) from some remote provincial outpost in the 19th century. I marveled at what I called its “almost skinless sound.” The vocals conjured up “a 200-year-old ghost … accidentally captured on the tape as, otherwise inaudible, it sang to Robertson’s playing of an old tune.” This was the sound of American folk music, one surmises (we can’t know for sure, of course), as it was before the advent of recording equipment.
If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed is not that sort of album, except perhaps on those occasions when Robertson sings in the sort of choked rasp that made Masses feel so eerily out of its era. Abair & Robertson’s atmospheric reading of “In the Pines” (accompanied by Fereale Robertson’s disembodied harmony singing) captures something of the not-of-this-earth sensibility of Robertson’s previous disc, and it owes nothing to the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe or Lead Belly. Mostly, though, the two have moved the music into the 20th century: not the fiddle/banjo duet itself, which goes back to what the antique song calls “the good old colony times,” but to the precision and tonality of more — relatively — modern approaches. Some of this survives in its native form in Appalachia, and you can still hear it on stages of Southern fiddle and folk festivals.
Abair & Robertson do what they do very well. The 17 cuts consist of genre standards (“Old Joe Clark,” “Ducks on the Millpond,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and the like), but the arrangements are distinctive and the melodies are not always the familiar ones. From the evidence of Masses it was clear that Robertson’s knowledge of traditional music is encyclopedic, and I presume Abair’s boasts comparable pagination. Their music is bright, vivid and lovely. If you find yourself nodding off through Sleep, see your doctor.”
I’ll be performing and doing clawhammer banjo workshops at the Sweet Sunny South Old Time American Music Festival next September (2010 that is. Weekend of the 10th to the 12th) in Hastings, East Sussex, England. Get you banjos sharpened up and come one, come all!
My recent show at Walthamstow Folk was a lot of fun. First of all, my host and the organizer, Russ Chandler (being a fellow banjo player) and I spent the afternoon talking shop and examining his beautiful classic banjos. We eventually made our way to the pub for the show, which was a nice format, with people doing floor spots before I played and at the intermission – a very civilized practice. The music was excellent and it was almost as if I was attending a concert myself! The people were participants rather than simply observers, getting up on stage and playing and singing and joining in on other’s choruses. Pete Stanley came down and played a couple of tunes, one on a minstrel style banjo he had made and another on a gorgeous Clifford Essex. If this was typical of British folk clubs I’ll be looking forward to doing more gigs in them.
Moseley Folk Festival was grueling to get to (as I was coming from France) and fun to play at. A beautiful place and a lot of good music. I even got to hear Jethero Tull soundcheck – unfortunately I had to leave before they played! Thanks to the guys working it for all the coffee and Indian food. And thanks to Mike Cummins for the photograph below. Below that, some photos from July 30th at the La-Roche-sur-Foron Bluegrass Festival, taken by my lovely wife, Fereale. Also a fun gig – nice audience and bluegrass groups from Hungary, Russia and France (just on the Sunday, others from various disparate places over the following days). Here’s a video from there of ‘Last Chance’.
So, I’ve been back long enough now from Holland to gather my thoughts and more importantly, get some pictures from The European World of Bluegrass 2009. Jan de Mooy and Lilly Pavlak were kind enough to send me some of the photographs they took. EWOB was a lot of fun, met a lot of nice people, saw some beautiful instuments, listened to a ton of music, played a little less and generally had a good time. I even took a clog dancing class with Julie Black, who also performed a number with me during the concert (there’s a picture below). She performed with me again a few days later at Het Oude Raadhuis in Hoofddorp, organized by Pieter Groenveld from Strictly Country Records. Thanks are due to the good people that organized all this, it’s quite a production and obviously a labor of love.
With my wife and I moving back to Europe shortly, I’ve been arranging some gigs there. I’ll be playing solo May 21-23 at the European World of Bluegrass Festival in Voorthuizen, The Netherlands and May 27 at Het Oude Raadhuis in Hoofddorp, The Netherlands (for reservations +31 (0)23 556 37 07). Also, September 4-6 at Moseley Folk Festival in Birmingham, England. (exact days and times to be announced for the festivals). If you, or someone you know, would like to book a gig around one of those dates (or even for a date that has nothing to do with those!), drop me a line.
Not quite a new review, it’s actually been up at County Sales for a while:
If you like Old-time banjo picking and you’re in the market for something different, you might try this unusual CD. But be forewarned: it ranges from the sublime to the bizarre: “songs for the Masses” it definitely ain’t. Mr Robertson is an excellent banjo picker; he also plays 12 string guitar on 4 pieces and his instrumental work is right on (check out the super picking on SOLDIER’S JOY). On a couple of tunes he plays a gut strung fretless banjo, and his 5 original pieces are interesting and well done. He also plays a fine medley of banjo tunes that incorporates BONAPARTE’S RETREAT and DUCKS ON THE MILLPOND with a couple of others in an impressive 5 and a half minute workout. The cuts that feature the 12-string guitar (plus one electric guitar cut) are bluesy, moody, and downright spooky at times. Even a one-man band piece (YOU GONNA NEED SOMEBODY ON YOUR BOND, with slide banjo, kazoo, high-hat and bass drum) adds to the overall interest. So what is so bizarre about all this? Robertson’s voice. It’s got to be the roughest voice we’ve ever heard—in Old-time, Bluegrass, Blues or whatever, and the main question we have is whether it is all a put on. Perhaps Robertson feels that this will take him back 80 or 100 years in time to where he would be considered a great find among field recording folklorists. Or perhaps this is his real voice (a scary thought). We will gladly leave that up to the listener to decide, adding again that there is some technically superb, soulful music to be heard here.
A new review of Sings Songs for the Masses from Sepiachord (from the site: “Sepiachord is the “genre that doesn’t exist”. It is to music what “steampunk” is to literature and cinema: something that looks back to the past to comment on the present while looking sideways at the future. A cubist aural experience.”)
“There’s the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The problem with that cliche is this: *That’s what covers are there for!* Covers are there to give you some idea about what can be found inside, there to pique your curiosity…
I raised an eyebrow when I slipped Hunter Robertson’s “Sings Songs for the Masses” from its envelope. Young guy, long haired, holding a baby, fuzzy focus… I estimated that I was in for a listening of homemade but uninventive folk. Something young and soft.
How (wonderfully) wrong I was. Hunter’s not as young as he looks… at least not in his soul and the music is anything but soft. “Sings Songs for the Masses” is a collection of gritty americana with Robertson’s skilled banjo playing as the focus. It’s fairly traditional (more than half the numbers are vintage tunes) but this collection never sounds stale. Perhaps that has as much to do with Hunter’s gruffy Tom Waits-like voice as it does the energy and vitality of his playing.
And it does sound vital. This isn’t some stodgy, dusty recreation of old-time field recordings (if it was Robertson probably wouldn’t include kazoo in the instrumentation or a greek folk song in the repertoire). Hunter brings youth and energy to these songs, which bodes well for his future outings.”
September 3rd 2008
- JP Candelier took some pictures of us recently. He’s a great photographer and you can see them all here.
- A couple of new reviews for my album Sings Songs for the Masses:
Trad Magazine review
“If I hadn’t seen the picture of Hunter Robertson on the CD cover I would have thought I was dealing with an older person. But no, in fact he’s a fairly young man. And that’s what is amazing! At times you would think you were listening to an old 78, but recorded with modern technology. Impressive! Hunter’s main instrument is the 5-string banjo, which he plays to perfection in all the old-time styles: clawhammer, two and three finger picking. Also the 12-string guitar, which is less common nowadays. I consider this to be one of the best CDs I’ve heard recently. To listen to, first of all, his compositions on the banjo: “Threw Down” and “Souris Mécanique”, and then his very beautiful version of “Red Wing” on the fretless gut-strung banjo as well as “Crawdad Hole” on the 12-string, a little treasure.”
“Si je n’avais pas vu la photo de Hunter Robertson sur la jaquette du CD, j’aurais cru avoir affaire à une personne d’un certain âge. Mais non, en fait, il s’agit d’un tout jeune homme. Et c’est cela qui est étonnant ! On croirait écouter un vieux 78 tours par moment, mais enregistré avec la technologie moderne. Bluffant ! L’instrument de prédilection de Hunter est le banjo 5 cordes qu’il joue à la perfection dans tous les styles de l’old time : clawhammer, two et three finger picking. Et puis aussi la guitare douze cordes, ce qui est moins courant à l’heure actuelle. Je considère que ce CD est l’un des meilleurs que j’ai entendus récemment. A écouter en priorité ses compositions au banjo : “Threw down” et “Souris mécanique”, et puis sa très belle version de “Red wing” au banjo fretless à cordes en boyau ainsi que “Crawdad hole” à la douze cordes, une petite merveille.”
- Claude Vue writing for Trad Magazine (France)
Bluegrass Unlimited review
Hunter Robertson is an old-time music musician from New England who has compiled an unusual 14-song collection blending both traditional and original material. Hunter performs all vocal and instrumental parts that include banjo, fretless banjo, 12-string guitar, kazoo, and electric guitar. Robertson’s raspy vocals may not be universally acceptable, but they do fit into the fabric of the arrangements. Featured performances include “Pretty Polly,” Robertson’s own “She Had Eyes,” “Ol’ Virginee,” and a bizarre rendering of “Crawdad Hole.” In spite of its title, Hunter Robertson “Sings Songs For The Masses” may be of limited interest except to those daring souls prepared to venture into unexplored territory.
- Bluegrass Unlimited (Sept. 2008)
August 1st 2008
Well! A great review of my CD in the latest issue of Sing Out!
Sing Out! review
unter Robertson is a modern day banjo songster. Sings Songs for the Masses is his first CD, and it’s a solo effort through and through with Hunter playing all the instruments and establishing a wide range of sounds all the while remaining solidly rooted in traditional old-time and blues.
Although his biographical information is sketchy, the cover photo shows a young man and the promotional material states that he has been playing the banjo and 12-string guitar for nearly 20 years. If I had to guess from listening to the CD, I’d say he’s a much older man. His voice is deep and resonant, and his playing is very reminiscent of Doc Boggs and various Piedmont blues players.
The CD opens with “Threw Down,” one of the half dozen original selections on the recording. It is a short drop-thumb clawhammer banjo piece demonstrating that he is a fine player. “She Had Eyes” follows, a tune that could easily have been heard on a plantation well before the Civil War when African American workers could only play music on whatever happened to be around them. Hunter performs on a self-made instrument called an Opus. It is a piece of music remarkably unaffected by modern styles.
We are introduced to Hunter’s singing through his rendition of “Pretty Polly.” His voice would indicate a life surrounded by the horrors described in the old-time classic. “You Gonna Need Someone On Your Bond” features Hunter as a one man band as he supplies slide banjo, bass drum, high hat, kazoo and vocals. He realistically captures the sound that was quite prevalent in many southern towns on court day. Later, Hunter includes “Milo mou Kokkino,” a Northern Greek tune, as part of a banjo medley containing “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Ducks on the Millpond” and “Salmon Tails up the River.”
Hunter Robertson is a highly talented traditional musician. Sings Songs for the Masses is as strong a solo CD as I’ve heard in quite some time.
– TD for Sing Out! (v. 52/2)
You can get the CD here (over on Hark) or from CD Baby or County Sales (their catalog number is HUNTER-2008), or, you can download it from iTunes. You can also get it by special request from Santa Claus.
July 5th 2008
This very nice review of Sings Songs for the Masses, written by Jerome Clark, just went up on Rambles.net:
“Listening to Songs for the Masses (that title comprising the album’s one and only flash of humor), I reflected on how rarely these days one hears traditional songs — field recordings aside — performed traditionally. Even less commonly encountered are records by raised-outside-the-tradition artists who choose to recreate a sound that seems to capture the feeling of homespun front-porch, dance-hall, street-corner music from the age before the advent of the recording industry. (Since we have no recordings from back then to guide us, imagination and inference are as omnipresent in the attempt as “authenticity,” of course.)
Hunter Robertson, who now resides in Vermont but who has lived in the United Kingdom, Greece and France, has produced that kind of record. The sole performer, he employs the banjo (along with the occasional fretless, gut-string or gourd variation) as his principal instrument, though 12-string guitar, electric guitar, kazoo and percussion also show up, if less often. There are 14 songs and instrumentals, approximately half of them traditional, the rest originals indistinguishable from traditionals.
Robertson sings in a rolling rumble that will likely put you in a couple of minds: Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart in one, in the other the sort of field recording in which an ethnomusicologist is seeking to document an instrumental style and the singing, rough as a cob, is simply — at least from the immediate academic perspective — extraneous. Contributing to the latter psychic impression is Robertson’s sometime habit of burying his vocal into the mix, if “mix” is not too fancy a word to denote the almost skinless sound; sometimes, if one were a superstitious soul, one might imagine a 200-year-old ghost was accidentally captured on the tape as, otherwise inaudible, it sang to Robertson’s playing of an old tune. All of this, by the way, is perfectly fine by me.
The banjo playing — as exquisite as it is eccentric — has the creaky ambience of a haunted house. “Banjo Medley” is 5:37′s worth of four venerable tunes played clawhammer style, the last of them a Greek folk piece that feels in no way out of place. The African-American spiritual “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed” has Robertson’s growled lyrics set on top of a fierce, doom-laden 12-string groove. It is damned scary.
‘Til now, I have not heard a version of “Red Wing” — though long since absorbed by tradition, it began its life as a pop song in the early 20th century — so stark and gloomy as to make one forget just how dopey the lyrics are. Even so, what a melody, all the more attractive for the way Robertson manages to turn it inside out without killing it. In another sit-up-and-take-notice moment, he gives “You Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” — always emotionally and rhythmically dead-on — the one-man-band treatment.
Songs for the Masses is for neither the masses nor the timid. But if you’re up for a walk through the lonesome valley that stretches across the moonless landscape of the old, weird America, Robertson will show you the way.” – Jerome Clark writing for Rambles.net
You can get the CD here (over on Hark) or from CD Baby or County Sales (their catalog number is HUNTER-2008), or, you can download it from iTunes. You can also get it by special request from Santa Claus.
June 10 2008
The Old-Time Herald review
Well, imagine my pleasure on receiving the June-July issue of The Old-Time Herald today and finding this review of my CD, Sings Songs for the Masses, by Pete Peterson:
“When you live far away from most other musicians, say on Crete, you will probably develop your own styles and write your own songs after wearing out all the recordings you brought with you. On this album, the artist composed about half the songs and tunes; the rest are traditional. His voice is distinctive, sounding like an old blues singer, filtered through a rock musician such as Eddie Vedder. The banjo playing is solid clawhammer with a light, sure touch. Not traditional old-time music as I know it, but eclectic and distinctive.”
You can get the CD here (over on Hark), or from CD Baby or County Sales (their catalog number is HUNTER-2008), or, you can download it from iTunes.
May 21 2008
Casey and I will be doing another radio show next week. It’ll be on www.wbkm.org at 5 p.m. (EST), Thursday the 29th of May.
Another good piece of news I’ve had floating around for a while: County Sales is carrying my CD, Sings Songs for the Masses.
May 15 2008
You’ve probably seen the news about China (not to mention Burma, too bad their government is making aid almost impossible to get in). It’s dire there, some recent incomplete figures suggest 14,463 people dead, another 14,051 missing, 25,788 buried in the debris and 64,746 injured. They’re still pulling people out of the rubble, but time is getting short! I was at work and it really got to me that while I was waxing some wooden statues there are nearly 26,000 people stuck in the rubble of collapsed buildings, so I’m going to donate what I can towards aid there. I’m writing to urge you to help out as much as you can. I’m donating money to the Scientology Volunteer Ministers ( http://www.volunteerministers.org/ ), but there are all kinds of other organizations active there – take your pick.
You know that famous quote from John Donne? “Ask not for whom the bell tolls”? That whole section reads: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
May 06 2008
Various good news:
- The Ostrich Testimonies won the Best of Arizona award at the Arizona International Film Festival!
- We have a show this Saturday, the 10th of May, at The Monkey House in Winooski, VT. Should be a lot of fun, Curtis Eller, New York’s angriest banjo player and Katie Trautz (of May Fly and Knotty Pine) will be playing that night as well – a fiddle and banjo extravaganza.
April 11 2008
Well, I got a little field recorder recently and have been enjoying it. Here are some of the fruits it has borne:
Run Slave Run (that’s an euphemism, the original is worse. I should probably just call it Pateroller but that leads to confusion with Hobart Smith’s, which is quite a different tune). Clawhammer banjo. fCFCD, tuned down to E or so. Learned this from various fields recordings of people singing, and there’s one version on fife I think, must have been recorded by John Lomax. Great tune, but can’t sing it. It seems though that it was a slave song, not a slave-owner’s (see Conway’s African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia).
Recorded on my bakelite Harmony. For a hundred bucks and being made of plastic it’s quite a banjo!
Liberty. Clawhammer banjo. gCGCD tuned down to who knows where. Learned this from John Burke’s book, Art Rosenbaum’s recording and my father’s playing. Played on an S.S. Stewart strung with nylgut. What a pretty tune.
March 29 2008
The Ostrich Testimonies (for which I wrote and recorded music, see older news) seems to have gotten a good reception at Austin’s South By Southwest festival and reviews are starting to come out. Here’s one from Variety. And he says about the music: “Hunter Robertson’s banjo-driven score is apt accompaniment for doc’s emotional highs and lows.”
March 6th 2008
Ach, Gary Gygax died on Tuesday. I lived and breathed Dungeons & Dragons for a few years. What made it such a great game? I’m not sure – maybe the combination of rampant imagination and sufficient limits to keep things from being too easy. Anyway, I’m sure glad it was around.
March 4th 2008
On February 27th Casey and I played live on Exposure, a show on WRUV hosted by Jeremy Ayers. Our friend Rose came and filmed it. Here’s one of the tunes:
Old Joe Clarke
February 29th 2008
Rod Stradling over at Musical Traditions wrote a nice review of my CD, Sings Songs for the Masses. Excerpts:
“So – this is the second CD I’ve received this month for which the words ‘strange and worthwhile’ seem appropriate…”
“All of the playing is pretty quirky – and extremely interesting…”
While he likes the instrumental stuff, he’s not so fond of my singing. This is the point of course at which I chime in with “De Gustibus non disputatum est!” But then he likes the rest of it so… some tastes I heartily agree with. It is a great pleasure to have been reviewed there, and I highly recommend the site. Lots of information on a wide variety of traditional musics. It’s where I was introduced to Sardinian polyphonic singing, and that is worth its weight in gold. How much does Sardinian polyphonic singing weigh? I don’t know, but it’s pretty heavy.
February 11 2008
Casey and I got together to practice the other day and we made this short video while we were at it. John Brown’s Dream, or Herve Brown’s Dream, or Little Rabbit or…
Jan. 27 2008
The Ostrich Testimonies, directed by Jonathan VanBallenberghe, for which I wrote and recorded music (played mainly on banjo, with some guitar), is going to be shown soon at the festival South by Southwest. Here’s a new trailer for it:
Jan. 26 2008
~ Well, we had a very nice time at the Monkey the other night. We played a few tunes with Knotty Pine and are talking about maybe getting a dance together there with them. After all, it is dance music we play!
~ In the meantime, we have a couple of dates set to play in Morrisville, VT at The Bee’s Knees on the 24th of February and the 25th of March, 7:30-10:00.
~ I also recently got a stack of CD’s of Sings Songs for the Masses made. Head over to Hark to listen to the songs and to order it.
Jan. 17 2008
Had a great Christmas in Arizona. We went to the Cogburn’s ostrich ranch and visited – I highly recommend it if you’re in the area, especially if you have kids. There’re deer to be pet, ostrich, emus and lorrikeets to be fed, giant truck rides and best of all, ostrich fishing! You have to see it with your own two eyes. Good news on The Ostrich Testimonies documentary, it’s been accepted to South by Southwest, apparently the second largest film festival after Sundance! I should have a new trailer for it up shortly.
Gigs: Casey Abair (on fiddle) and I will be playing at the Monkey House in Winooski, VT on Thursday the 24th of January. Things get going at 8. Also that evening will be Paddy Reagan and Knotty Pine. Hope to see you there!