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Unfortunate Puppy: Intermediate & Advanced Lessons in Clawhammer Banjo, then If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed, then for Sings Songs for the Masses.
Unfortunate Puppy: Intermediate & Advanced Lessons in Clawhammer BanjoFrom Banjo Newsletter:
Unfortunate Puppy and Other Fine Tunes: Lessons in Intermediate & Advanced Clawhammer Banjo, By Hunter Robertson, DVD $24.99.
Mel Bay 22208DVD. www.hunterrobertson.com
Review by John Walkenbach
First a disclaimer: I’m not what you’d call a major consumer of banjo instruction DVDs. In fact, prior to the DVD I’m reviewing here, I’ve spent time with exactly one of them: Mike Seeger’s classic Southern Banjo Styles #1 (which actually had its origins on VHS tape). That one was entertaining and informative, but was lacking quite a bit in terms of actual instruction. I’ve seen parts of a few other instructional DVDs, but they just didn’t suit my “figure it-out-yourself” personal learning style.
I did some research and discovered that quite a few clawhammer banjo instructional DVDs are available for students of all levels. This review focuses on Hunter Robertson’s first video product, released earlier this year. Robertson is an excellent player and singer, and has also recorded two CDs. And as I discovered, he’s also an exceptional instructor.
Unfortunate Puppy and Other Fine Tunes is intended for intermediate and advanced players. It teaches ten tunes (with varying levels of difficulty), and also includes some extra features, which I describe later. In addition, the disc contains a 26-page electronic booklet (in PDF format) that includes detailed notes for each tune, links to other recordings of the tunes, and lots of good old banjo-playing advice. Don’t ignore that PDF file.
If you’re just starting out on banjo, you’ll be better served by choosing an introductory DVD from somebody like Bob Carlin, Chris Coole, David Holt, Dan Levenson, or Ken Perlman.
The DVD is jam-packed with 133 minutes of content, and none of it’s filler. The video format is widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio), which is ideal for the split screen technique he uses to show both hands simultaneously. The audio and video quality of this DVD is excellent. I watched it on my computer, as well as a large screen TV. The navigation structure of the DVD is such that you can quickly get to any part with only a few clicks or button presses. You can view some samples from the DVD on YouTube, or at Hunter's web site.
Two things make this DVD different from your typical instructional banjo video: (1) It does not include tabs for the tunes, and (2) Robertson plays all the tunes on a fretless banjo.
An instructional video without tabs? Heresy! Well, not really. A common discussion topic on the Banjo Hangout deals with learning from tabs vs. learning by ear. I’ve always been in the latter camp, and this DVD makes an excellent case for learning by ear -- although being able to watch both of his hands means that it doesn’t have to be strictly by ear. Using tab sometimes promotes note-by-note memorization, something that Robertson does not encourage.
The author’s advice on using the DVD: “Get the tune solidly in your mind, use the video for ideas of how to approach the tune, techniques to use and so on, and then create your own version of it.”
But if you absolutely must have tab, here’s some good news. If you purchase the DVD, you’ll be able to download the tabs for the tunes, created by Tony Spadero (AKA oldwoodchuck at Banjo Hangout). Check the author’s website (www.hunterrobertson.com) for details. One of the tabs is included here. Keep in mind that it's just an approximation of what's really happening in the tune.
Robertson uses an old inexpensive Harmony Reso-Tone banjo, with the frets filed down to make it a fretless. The fret lines are clearly visible, though, so the student can always tell which fret position is being used. In addition, the banjo has black strings so they show up better in the videos. Initially, I had my doubts about his use of a fretless banjo, but it works just fine for the lessons. But those who play a normal fretted banjo won’t be able to get the “in between” notes without a bit of string bending.
If you play the DVD sequentially, you’ll first see a short introduction, followed by a fast-paced and concise 12-minute overview of just about every right and left hand technique I’ve ever heard of. You’ll see explanations and demos of drop thumb, M skips, Galax licks, slides, push-offs, hammer-ons, pull-offs, alternate string pull-offs, and more. Noticeably absent is the “cluck,” a technique Robertson doesn’t use much. It’s a great overview, and I think even veteran players will benefit from watching this section.
The tunes are presented by tuning, rather than relative difficulty, so it’s up to the student to determine which tunes to tackle first. I’d suggest Lonesome John and Candy Girl, which happen to be the first two tunes.
Each tune lesson starts with a brief introduction in which Hunter describes the tuning, part structure, and the source of the tune. Then Robertson plays the tune at full speed, several times through, usually with variations. Next, he breaks the tune down and provides some detailed verbal instruction for tricky parts or phrases – just as a real-life instructor might do. This is followed by a half speed recording for those who want to focus on a particular part. Finally, he plays the tune at a moderate tempo, suitable for play-along practice. All of the video segments use a split-screen technique that clearly shows both hands simultaneously. This method of presenting the material works amazingly well.
The DVD has 96 minutes of this type of instruction, so each tune gets a bit less than ten minutes of coverage. That’s just enough time, as far as I’m concerned.
The ten tunes use five different tunings:
Sawmill (gDGCD): Lonesome John
Open G: (gDGBD): Candy Girl, Boatin’ Up Sandy, and Cripple Creek
Double C (gCGCD): Unfortunate Puppy and Ducks on the Millpond
Triple C (gCGCC): Raleigh & Spencer and Bonaparte’s Retreat
Open F (fCFCD): Leather Britches and Ft. Smith Breakdown
My only nitpick with this DVD is that all of tunes are played one note lower than the key in which they are normally played. He plays A tunes in G, D tunes in C, and G tunes in F. His banjo certainly sounds good tuned a note lower (and Robertson prefers the feel of looser strings), but some (including me) would prefer that the tunes be in their normal keys. The relative string pitches are the same, of course, so using a capo at the second fret will put you at the traditionally-played key (but you won’t be able to play along with the DVD). On the other hand, when played as solo banjo arrangements, the pitch doesn’t really matter.
The difficulty level of the tunes varies quite a bit. Candy Girl is the easiest, and Unfortunate Puppy is probably the most challenging. The best part of each lesson is when Robertson demonstrates and explains various techniques used in the tune. You see quite a few of the concepts that are demonstrated in the opening “techniques” segment used in actual practice.
Robertson’s arrangement for each tune is based on a particular recording by a classic old-time fiddler – people like John Salyer, Wilson Douglas, Emmett Lundy, and Tommy Jarrell. He didn’t include the original source recordings for these tunes, but they are all available, and the PDF file includes links.
In addition to the “techniques” section and the ten tune lessons, the DVD includes two extra features: a video of Robertson playing and singing Raleigh & Spenser, plus an 18-minute overview of old time 2- and 3-finger picking styles (using six additional tunes: Darlin’ Cora, Mole In the Ground, Roving Gambler, Drunken Hiccups, Danville Girl, and Sugar Baby).
I can’t stress enough how good the video quality is on this DVD. Even the slowed-down segments are crisp and blur-free. In some cases, the slowed down audio suffers a bit (which is to be expected), but it never gets out of the acceptable range.
This DVD sets a new standard for banjo instructional material, and I can’t imagine any clawhammer player who couldn’t pick up a few things while watching it.
I have only one suggestion: Provide a “play all” option that simply plays the full speed version of all ten tracks sequentially. It would be entertaining to watch, and, as background music, help the player become familiar with the tunes. Better yet, include MP3 files on the DVD so students can use their own slow-down software.
If you’re the type of player who has grown to depend on tab when learning a new tune, this DVD (along with some time and effort) might assist you in breaking free from that constraint. But, as I mentioned, this product is not a start-from-scratch package for beginners. The 12-minute introductory video provides a quick overview of clawhammer techniques, but don’t expect this video to provide everything a new player must know. But on the other hand, I think most new players would certainly enjoy seeing a banjo master in action – especially one who explains what he’s doing.
This DVD is competitively priced – the cost of about two CDs, or about half of what you’d pay for a single private lesson.
If all instructional videos were this good, it might turn me into a DVD consumer after all. – John Walkenbach
From Bluegrass Unlimited:
UNFORTUNATE PUPPY AND OTHER FINE TUNES: LESSONS IN INTERMEDIATE & ADVANCED CLAWHAMMER BANJO
Mel Bay 22208DVD.
On this well-done instructional video, Hunter Robertson lays out the groundwork for learning old-time banjo—not just clawhammer style, but also two- and three-finger styles. The main thrust of this DVD is to present right- and left-hand techniques, tunings grounded in the fundamentals that build an informed style.
Robertson gives a brief description of each tune, then plays the tune. Next, he breaks the tune down with a verbal description of what he is doing. Then the tune is played slowed so that you can easily follow the right- and left-hand finger positions. Finally, it’s played at a medium tempo for you to practice along. Split-screens showing the two hands are used throughout. There are visual guides to help you keep on track. He teaches ten tunes played in the clawhammer-style in this fashion.
There is a wonderful section on right-hand techniques where Robertson takes a good amount of time to explain the techniques and demonstrate them, following the same procedure he uses for the ten clawhammer tunes. The tunes are credited to his source and he attempts to catch the essence of that performance. He does not lavishly copy the source, but he does successfully present a rendition that is honest and accurate. The complexity of the tunes will take an intermediate to advanced ability to pull off. If you have mastered the right-hand techniques addressed in that section, it will make it much easier to tackle the tunes.
There is an in-depth section that covers several factors for mastering these styles. Robertson discusses thumb lead versus index lead in the two-finger style and does a nice job of demonstrating the old time three-finger approach. He demonstrates the piece “in the style” of a source and not necessarily a note-for-note representation of anyone’s style. The split screen reveals how both hands interact. He also slows these pieces down, as well. He does a nice job of breaking down Dock Boggs’ “Danville Girl” and “Sugar Baby” to demonstrate the essence of Dock’s style. The other extra is a performance of “Raleigh & Spencer” that can also be viewed on YouTube. Robertson’s guttural vocals and forceful banjo playing make for an impressive performance.
Robertson uses black-coated strings on his banjo so the viewer has no problem seeing which strings he is hitting. The accompanying .PDF provides a good deal of information on these tunes. There is a list of a lot of resources that can currently be found on the Internet. This DVD stands among the best out there for learning more about the old-time banjo styles. RCB (Mel Bay Publications, Inc., #4 Industrial Dr., Pacific, MO 63069, www.melbay.com.)
From Trad Magazine:
BRAVO (Trad Mag's award of distinction)
We knew that Hunter Robertson was an excellent banjo player, his last CD If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed (Trad Mag n° 129) proved it to us, if needed. Now, with this DVD, we also know that he's an excellent teacher.
This new DVD isn't a beginner's clawhammer banjo method but is more dedicated to those who already have a good grounding in the style. The idea behind these lessons is excellent, that is, learning to play well known (at least to aficionados) versions of fiddle tunes on the banjo, such as "Cripple Creek", "Bonaparte's Retreat", "Ducks on the Millpond"… ten fiddle tunes in all.
The first chapter is a review of all the clawhammer banjo player's "tools" such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, alternate string pull-offs, slides and other techniques used in the style.
For each piece, Hunter plays a version at normal speed, then he explains the difficulties of the piece and then plays it again at a slower pace so that you can train by playing it along with him.
As a bonus, Hunter gives a quick look at two and three-finger picking styles.
This is an excellent DVD and should immensely please those who are interested in the style, who'll find not only beautiful versions of fiddle tunes but also ideas for arranging pieces of their own choice. – Claude Vue
On savait Hunter Robertson excellent banjoïste, son dernier CD « If you want to go to sleep, go to bed » (Trad Mag n° 129) nous l’avait prouvé si besoin était. Maintenant, avec ce DVD, on sait aussi que c’est un excellent pédagogue.Ce nouveau DVD n’est pas une méthode de banjo clawhammer mais est plutôt réservé à ceux qui ont déjà une bonne expérience du genre. L’idée de ces leçons est excellente, à savoir apprendre au banjo des versions de fiddle tunes connus, tout du moins par les afficionados tel que Cripple Creek, Bonaparte’s retreat, Ducks on the millpond…..en tout dix fiddle tunes.Le premier chapitre est une revue de tous les « outils » du banjoïste en style clawhammer à savoir les hammers, pull offs, alternate string pull offs, slides et autres techniques particulières au style.Pour chaque morceau, Hunter donne une version à vitesse normale, il explique ensuite les difficultés du morceau puis le rejoue à vitesse plus lente pour que vous puissiez vous entrainer avec lui.En bonus, Hunter donne un bref aperçu des styles « two fingers » et « three fingers » picking.Ce DVD est excellent et devrait ravir les adeptes du genre qui vont y trouver outre de très belles versions de fiddle tunes mais aussi des idées pour arranger des morceaux de leur choix. –Claude Vue
From Tony Spadaro at Rocket Science Banjo:
It isn't often that one is present to witness a real revolution, but I feel I have seen the future of Banjo Instruction with Hunter Robertson's new video “The Unfortunate Puppy & Other Fine Tunes: Lessons in Intermediate & Advanced Clawhammer Banjo”. The work Hunter and his associate, videographer Jonathan Vanballenberghe of Open Lens Productions openlensproductions.com/ have done with this video will quickly bring the standard for DVD lessons up from that of purely supplemental material to a vastly improved method of teaching stringed and fretted instruments. I'm not joking. This video has as much to teach banjo teachers as has for banjo students, and it will influence All fretted and stringed instrument teaching DVDs for decades to come.From Gadaya at Cornbread, Molasses & Sassafras Tea:
Most banjo videos, consist of a medium shot of the player/teacher with a downright dinky close-up of either the left or right hand inserted into the blank space off to his left side. Both hands come out quite small, and the actual playing is really too fast to be caught on normal (30 frames a second) video. Hunter and Vanballenberghe have dumped that format and created a new way that shows both hands large and clear. The view appears to be what you would see sitting in the usual student's position across from a teacher with a banjo. However, instead of wasting screen space the picture has been sectioned, leaving out the dull, unchanging landscape between the frailing and the fretting. Why Didn't I think of That?
While this innovation alone would be a major improvement to most videos, it is only after extended viewing that I realized each of the hands had been filmed to be seen at the best angle for catching the details of the playing. It is easy to see exactly what happens at the fingers and frets level of the left hand and to catch exactly which string is being plucked by the right.
While this alone would be revolutionary there is another big improvement in the presentation. The video was probably filmed with the camera running at double speed (60 frames per second) so that when it is slowed down to 30 there is remarkably little of that low speed video mush in the picture. You can see the hands working side by side in smooth slo-mo. Every detail is right smack in your face. You can't miss a thing.
Each of the tunes is presented in four ways – at full speed, complete with variations, followed by a section at half speed using the slo-mo technique described above. Then Hunter goes over the tune in detail showing each melodic figure complete with spoken playing notes explaining the various techniques as Hunter demos them. Finally there is a simple medium speed version designed so the student can play along with the teacher just as in a face to face lesson.
The tunes go from very easy (Candy Girl) to moderately difficult (The Unfortunate Puppy). Learning each tune will also add new techniques to your playing repertory. In “Lonesome John” there are several Alternate String Hammer-Ons (ASHOs), the less known brother to the world famous Alternate String Pull-Off (ASPO), While in “Boatin' Up Sandy” you will find M Skips, Double ASPOs, syncopated M Skips, and the undeservedly rare “Down Slide”. “Ducks On The Millpond” is a refreshingly different version from Emmett Lundy with a lesson on grace notes to boot. For those who (like me) love Triple C (or Triple D) tuning there is W. M. Stepp's superlative version of “Bonaparte's Retreat” and for the straight “G” tuning set, you'll find an exceptional version of “Cripple Creek” from the playing of Hobart Smith. While you could play this with your local jam group, it that has a voice and ambiance all its own. In fact the techniques used in these ten tunes will bring sparkle to all your current and future tunes repertoire. Every new technique you learn becomes another tool in your kit, and another voice in your musical choir. Hunter recommends listening to the original versions of these tunes, and all are available on the internet
Along with the 10 tune videos there is also a “Techniques Video” jam packed full of extremely useful stuff and well worth the price of the entire DVD. There is also an all too brief demonstration of Up Picked styles. The DVD cannot have much space left over. I suspect most players will return to all the lessons from time to time in order to gain new insights from them.
While Hunter describes this video as being for Intermediate to Advanced students I am going to respectfully disagree. I don't think you have to be “advanced” much beyond beginning player to get more than your money's worth from The Unfortunate Puppy. Anyone with the basic strokes down comfortably, who can play the common clawhammer rhythms and follow clearly presented examples should be able to use these videos to one degree or another, and will know more about clawhammer in general than most other Beginners or Intermediate or Advanced players. Furthermore you will be learning from a master player and a master instructor – these aren't always one and the same person. The banjo world is extremely lucky to have Hunter Robertson. He is a great banjo player and The Unfortunate Puppy, sets the Gold Standard for teaching videos.
Let me insert a bit of shameless self promotion here:
Many of the techniques described in the Unfortunate Puppy are also found in Chapter 4 of Rocket Science Banjo. Double Pull-Offs, Down Slides, The M Skip, etc are all covered in my book, making it a good companion for Hunter's video. There is even an example of Hunter’s syncopated M Skip and the “Rushed Thumb Stroke – which I described in Ken Perlman's 1981 book “Clawhammer Style Banjo”, and which will eventually be covered in RSB too. There are even versions of a couple tunes on the video tabbed out in the book.
RSB is free to all, so grab up a copy at:
And in conclusion:
I think Hunter's technique video alone is worth the price of the DVD. Everyone has to make their own decision as to when they are ready for this material but I would recommend it to my students on the early side rather than wait. I think that most people will get their money's worth, and that over time it will prove more than just useful to anyone willing to put some time into learning the material. Nothing “teaches” you the banjo – you gotta do all the work – even the banjo doesn't really do anything for you.
That said, this is the best instructional video I've ever seen. It is well worth your money and more importantly, it is well worth your time.
I wanted to review this excellent new instructional dvd by Hunter Robertson that teaches 10 banjo arrangements of fiddle tunes in the clawhammer style. There are not so many instructional dvds on the market that focus on old-time banjo styles (the greatest being the 3 Dvds “Southern Banjo Styles” by Mike Seeger) and this one is rather aimed at advanced players so rejoice, all of you banjo frailers! Hunter is a great banjo player who already recorded two discs (the last one i reviewed on this blog here) and he did a fantastic job on this lesson by choosing well-known and not so well-known fiddle tunes and came out with intricate and enjoyable arrangements that will challenge most players. The tunes are by legends of old-time fiddling like John Morgan Salyer, Tommy Jarrell, Emmett Lundy, William Stepp, Uncle Bunt Stephens, Hobart Smith… There are at least four different banjo tunings used and a full array of clawhammer techniques are displayed and explained. This is about the content of the lesson but the form is also really well made, with camera angles and slow motions allowing the viewer to see both hands at work and not missing a lick. It’s worth mentioning that Hunter uses a rather simple Harmony banjo that was turn to a fretless (but you still see the frets marks) to teach the lesson and proves that one doesn’t have to possess a fancy instrument to play great old-time mountain music. As a bonus, Hunter explain a bit about two and three-finger old-time picking styles, and you can see a clip of him playing and singing (Hunter has a powerful and raucus voice that reminds me a bit of australian rock singer Nick Cave) the great song “Raleigh and Spencer”. For me, the cherry on top of this great lesson is the pdf booklet that goes in lenght to cite the sources of the tunes, the tunings, the discography and many other details that are really invaluable informations for the player and listener. Well done, Hunter!
As I said above, all of the arrangements on these dvd were inspired by old field recordings and 78rpm records of great fiddlers and most of these are available for free online thanks to the Digital Library of Appalachia (on the pdf booklet, you just have to click on the link to be directed to the exact page). Nevertheless, I compiled myself the 10 original fiddle tunes to help me learn them with Hunter’s banjo versions and you can download them as well for the same purpose and for your listening pleasure (just be warned that the recording quality on some of them is very bad…).
To get the tunes that Gadaya has put together, go to his site: Cornbread, Molasses & Sassafras Tea
From No Fences/Bluegrass Bühne:
The banjo player with the rough voice, who at this time is living in Geneva, submits an educational DVD which has been released by a leading US music publisher. Ten known old-time titles like “Cripple Creak” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” he wants to teach us here, with the explicit purpose that we to not imitate everything slavishly, but develop our own ideas. With that, he plays a fretless banjo.
In contrast to the dialog based AcuTab DVDs, Robertson conducts frontal lessons. Basically, the screen is divided for the left and the right hand, in close-up. As an introduction, Roberson shows the various striking techniques, then the pieces are introduced in normal speed, then technical detail is explained, and finally the pieces are played again in half and medium speed. One should actually bring along some knowledge of the clawhammer style, the entrance level seems high.
The clawhammer style may seem clumsy and primitive, here it becomes clear how subtle and elaborate it can be and how every musician has his peculiarities. Except in “Raleigh & Spencer”, Robertson does not sing (he anyhow rather snarls), not even where there is a text. Finally, the demonstrates 2- and the 3-finger picking and plays “Raleigh & Spencer” again fully.
As an add-on, the DVD has a 26-page booklet in PDF format for printing, with all the needed explanations and advices. Working one’s way through these music lessons will cost some considerable effort, but in the end one surely will have learned something. – Eberhard Finke
From Fiddler Magazine (Summer Issue 2010)
If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed
This is a collection of banjo-fiddle duets that are played with verve and drive that are all too rare. For the most part, everything goes well. They do tend to speed up, but the momentum of these pieces is forgivable and typical of young players searching for their groove. Robertson's vocals have more in common with Howling Wolf than any old time vocalist. Both musicians dig back into the primordial bedrock of the music and go with a deep respect for the tradition and players who came before them. Tunes comes from Wade Ward, Hobart Smith, and Elizabeth Cotton. The title comes from a quote by the late banjo player Charlie Lowe.
If you like your old time raw-edged and full of attitude, look no further than this fun project. Recorded at home, it has the ambience of a field recording and the charm found in the performances of musicians who truly love the music. – Bob Buckingham
From Sing Out! Magazine (Vol.53 #3):
The title of this wonderful 17-song collection of traditional tunes comes from long-gone Round Peak banjoist Charlie Lowe, who preferred up-tempo songs. The album is aptly titled, a delight to listen to and explore. “Explore” because nearly all the songs, though familiar (“Devil’s Dream,” “The Coo Coo,” “Ducks on the Millpond,” etc.), are based on versions that are a bit more obscure. These small differences add a great deal of interest to the recording. For instance, “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is based on Bill Stepp’s version, rather than the more well-known melody.
The liner notes state that the album was recorded “direct to stereo, over the course of a few months in our homes, not always under the most sanitary of sound conditions, the sirens on ‘Sugar Baby’ for example” – there’s definitely an old-time aesthetic to the recording. These guys are well versed in the repertoire, but even more important, they deliver it with fresh abandon. They don’t sound like they’re scared to make a mistake, which is an even greater homage to the old songs.
Hunter Robertson previously released a solo CD, Sings Songs for the Masses, to good reviews, and this is Casey Joe Abair’s first recording. A word might be said about Robertson’s vocals, which tend toward the gravelly side. I like his voice, but it’s a tone more on the bluesy side of old-time. Still, we don’t all have to sound alike, and his style is unaffected. A highlight is “Hog Eyed Man,” with amazing lyrics that come from the dark underbelly of old-time.
Terrific packaging and liner notes, with brief historical sources on each song and banjo tunings. A highly engaging selection, well played. — CS for Sing Out! Magazine
From Acoustic Magazine (issue 38):
Named after a favorite saying of banjo player Charlie Lowe, Abair and Robertson present a collection of old time material.
The vocals are surprising, as Robertson, featured on the cover, doesn’t look like that sort whiskey-and-cigarettes voice should come out of, and are addictive, especially on I Truly Understand and the well known but speedy version of Old Joe Clark. The real charm in this album is that although the musicians work tightly together, it sounds like it was recorded in someone’s back yard. There’s nothing not to like here; the musicianship is excellent, the rhythm infectious and the style abundant. As the title suggests, it’s not for the tired. http://hunterrobertson.com/ifyouframe.html
From Maverick Magazine:
"Fast-paced picking carried off in such a confident and prolific way that simply leaves you gob smacked.
This being his second release, the Californian-born but now French native Hunter Robertson really is something. Consisting of seventeen songs, it is evident from this raw and unadulterated beauty that what we have here, ladies and gentleman, are some ultra fine musicians playing their hearts out. This type of music is at its finest when played live and untouched, and I suspect that this was the case here as, after Hunter’s superlative efforts on banjo and Casey’s fine fiddling, they just played it until they got it right and pressed it onto disc.
The finest track has to be The Devil’s Dream. Perfect for The Louisiana Hayride when it was in full swing, this relatively short track of less than two and a half minutes is perfect in every sense. Whether it be the excellent banjo or superb fiddling, there is nothing to dislike about this track. The same can certainly be said about June Apple. A moderate fiddling pace, this tune has a relaxed bluegrass sound which I’m sure allows the crowd to show their appreciation in rapturous applause; a track which is not one to dance to as when Casey and Hunter play like this such an occasion has to be watched.
An experience to relish, listening to this album sure was a most enjoyable time. A highly recommended album which I strongly urge you to try and track down. Russell Hill"
From Germany's FolkWorld:
“…Casey Joe Abair and Hunter Robertson take it a totally different way. Their music on banjo, violin and vocals is energetic and raw. The banjo sounds occasionally like a wild storm and impresses in combination with Robertson’s raw and heavy voice. I like the way this duo totally give themselves to the music. They keep the ancient soul of the compositions and force me to listen to their music with superb music and compositions in which the musicians search for the outer limits of their possibilities and have the guts to ignore standard conventions. I appreciate that and the result is an album with good old banjo/violin music that both sounds like it’s decades old and modern at the same time.” - Eelco Schilder for FolkWorld
From Old Time News (FOAOTMAD):
This is a collection of fiddle-banjo duets with some singing from two musicians whose names are relatively new to me, but whom I'm looking forward to hearing more from at this year's Sweet Sunny South festival in September, where they will perform along with the New Deal String Band.
The recordings, on John Herrman's Yodel-Ay-Hee label, were made in the performers' homes, and have a raw, unengineered sound of the kind we're all used to in modern field recordings, with creaking chairs and floorboards. The instruments are played loudly and enthusiastically with a good swing, and at a pace I've come to expect from some of the younger American players. The title of the CD is a quote from the Round Peak pioneer Charlie Lowe of Mount Airy NC who apparently liked his music fast.
The tunes on the CD are largely the session standards most of us have come to know and love, played tightly with a lot of both technique and energy. They play a lovely driving "Last Chance" and I like the fact that they play Bill Stepp's version of "Bonaparte's Retreat" ("that's the boney part") and not the usual one with the terrible sand dance. Their "Sandy River Belle" is a very different tune to the one I know, while their "June Apple" is good and wild.
The balance, unusually, is slightly in the banjo player's favour; this unfortunately makes the fiddling on some of the tunes, whilst very good, a little less prominent than usual. There's some singing on a few of the tracks from Robertson whose voice has a gritty quality that reminds me of gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson. The sleeve notes, by Hunter Robertson, give all the tunings used on banjo and fiddle, with some source information for the selected tunes.
By Ray Banks
From the Inland Northwest Bluegrass Association's Bluegrass Blabber:
“Casey Joe Abair & Hunter Robertson, If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed (hunterrobertson.com). Hot old-timey fiddle and banjo. Seventeen knock-yer-socks-off numbers. These guys are not kidding around!” - Mitch Finley, Inland Northwest Bluegrass Association’s Bluegrass Blabber
From the French Trad Magazine (No. 129, Jan-Feb 2010) (translation below):
"« Si vous voulez dormir, allez au lit » était la réponse que faisait le banjoïste Charlie Lowe à ceux qui trouvaient qu’il jouait trop vite. J’avais adoré le premier CD de Hunter Robertson, “Song For The Masses”, j’aime encore plus celui-ci. C’est un exercice difficile et dangereux que de jouer dans cette combinaison, uniquement un violon et un banjo. Hunter et Casey réussissent magnifiquement. Les deux instruments s’emmêlent, s’interpellent. Un vrai plaisir. On ne peut s’empêcher de penser au duo Tommy Jarrell & Fred Cockerham. Le choix des morceaux est excellent : des classiques (June Apple, Old Joe Clark, Sail Away Ladies) et des surprises, des versions inconnues ou peu connues (telles Fort Smith Breakdown ou Hog Eyed Man). Hunter chante avec une voix râpeuse à souhait, secondée par la voix très pure de sa femme Féréale sur trois morceaux, dont le très beau I Truly Understand. Un superbe album, conseillé aux amateurs de musique old time français."
"Le second opus d’Hunter Robertson, cette fois-ci en compagnie d’un fiddler pour revisiter le répertoire à banjo et violon. Sûrement l’un des meilleurs CDs de musique old time du moment."
"'If you want to go to sleep, go to bed' was banjo player Charlie Lowe's reply to those who found that he played too fast. I loved Hunter Robertson's first CD, Songs for the Masses, I like this one even more. Playing in this combination of just fiddle and banjo is a difficult and dangerous exercise. Hunter and Casey succeed magnificently. The two instruments intertwine and respond to each other. A real pleasure. You can't help but think of the duo of Tommy Jarrell & Fred Cockerham. The choice of pieces is excellent: classics (June Apple, Old Joe Clark, Sail Away Ladies) and some surprises, unknown or little known versions (like Fort Smith Breakdown or Hog Eyed Man). Hunter sings with a voice as rough as you could wish for, supported by the very pure voice of his wife Féréale on three pieces, including the very beautiful "I Truly Understand". A superb album, recommended to French old-time music fans."
Claude also included the album in his Trad Magazine list of the 5 best albums of the year (Thanks a lot Claude!). "Hunter Robertson's second opus, this time in the company of a fiddler, revisiting the banjo/fiddle repertory. Certainly one of the best current CDs of old-time music." (my translation) - Claude Vue for Trad Magazine
Here's another French one from the magazine Le Cri du Coyote (No. 114) (translation below):
"Casey Joe ABAIR et Hunter ROBERTSON sont respectivement originaires du Vermont et de Californie (Robertson réside actuellement en France) mais ils jouent de la musique old time des Appalaches. Pour les 17 morceaux traditionnels qui composent If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed (Yodel-Ay-Hee 074), ils citent les artistes qui les leur ont fait connaître (Hobart Smith, Wade Ward, Tommy Jarrell, New Lost City Ramblers, Elizabeth Cotton et beaucoup d'autres). Tout est interprété en duo fiddle/banjo. Hunter Robertson (bjo) chante 7 morceaux d'une voix grave, gutturale et râpeuse. Une harmonie vocale et des choeurs adoucissent quelque peu le chant sur I Truly Understand et Sail Away Ladies qui figurent parmi les titres les plus réussis. Robertson alterne le clawhammer et un style mixte qui intègre du picking (I Truly Understand). Il a un jeu qui respecte et met en valeur la mélodie et sur certains instrumentaux c'est d'avantage le fiddle qui accompagne le banjo plutôt que l'inverse (Last Chance, Sugar Baby). Robertson joue plusieurs titres sur un banjo fretless et quelque fois à des tempos très rapides (Run Slave Run, Lonesome John). Il utilise une syncope originale, apparemment accompagnée de notes tirées sur The Devil's Dream et Sandy River Belles. Le style de CJ Abair au fiddle est plus classique, avec une mélodie un peu tronquée quand le banjo est en avant. Mon morceau favori est cependant June Apple mené par le fiddle, comme le sont Old Joe Clark et Lonesome John, également assez réussis. Il faut une ou deux écoutes pour se faire a la voix d'Hunter Robertson mais cet album n'est pas forcement réservé aux amateurs de old time hard-core!"
Casey Joe Abair and Hunter Robertson are from, respectively, Vermont and California (Robertson currently lives in France) but they play old-time music from the Appalachians. For the 17 traditional pieces that make up If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed (Yodel-Ay-Hee 074) they list the artists that they learned from (Hobart Smith, Wade Ward, Tommy Jarrell, The New Lost City Ramblers, Elizabeth Cotton and lots of others). All are played as a fiddle/banjo duet. Hunter Robertson (banjo) sings seven pieces in a deep, rough, guttural voice. Harmony and backing vocals soften the singing somewhat on 'I Truly Understand' and 'Sail Away Ladies', which are among some of the most successful pieces. Robertson switches between clawhammer and a mixed style which includes fingerpicking ('I Truly Understand'). His playing respects and highlights the melody and on some instrumentals it's more the fiddle that accompanies the banjo than the other way around ('Last Chance', 'Sugar Baby'). Robertson plays several tunes on a fretless banjo, sometimes at a very fast pace ('Run Slave Run', 'Lonesome John') and has an original sense of syncopation. CJ Abair's style on the fiddle is more classic, with the melody slightly abbreviated when the banjo is up front. My favorite piece though is 'June Apple' led by the fiddle, as are 'Old Joe Clark' and 'Lonesome John', also fairly well done. It takes a listen or two to get used to Robertson's voice but this album isn't necessarily limited to hardcore old-time fans! (my translation) - Cri du Coyote
From Germany's Country Home:
"Dem primitiven, unnachahmlichen Stil der Appalachen haben sich diese zwei Interpreten hier angenommen. Und genauso primitiv wirkt der Gesang auf ihrem Tonträger. Gerade deshalb verdienen die zwei aber uneingeschränkte Aufmerksamkeit. Denn Simplizität kann nie gleichgesetzt werden mit Anspruchlosigkeit. Was die beiden hier bieten, ist vom Feinsten, auch wenn viele Zuhörer damit wahrscheinlich nichts anfangen können. Nur wenige begreifen, wie unglaublich sensibel das Gefiddle von Casey Joe Abair neben dem Clawhammer-Banjo von Hunter Robertson ist. Und wie gut sich die beiden Musiker ergänzen. Mit von der Partie sind so bekannte Stücke wie „Bonaparte’s Retreat“ oder „Old Joe Clark“. Und jetzt weiss ich auch, wie mein einfacher, aber raffinierter Blues-Song „Sugar Baby“ im Appalachen-Stil klingt. Ebenso genial, nämlich." - Country Home
Hunter Robertson / Sings Songs For The Masses / Eigen Beheer Casey Joe Abair & Hunter Robertson / If You Want To Go To Sleep, Go To Bed / Yodel-Ay-Hee 074 (www.hunterrobertson.com) Hunter Robertson (1972) is geboren in California, verhuisde met zijn van origine Schotse vader in 1986 naar de Haute Savoie in Frankrijk en begon weer een paar jaar later interesse te krijgen in gitaarspelen. Pa kocht een 6-snarige Epiphone voor hem en leerde hem de eerste beginselen van het spel, compleet met Carter Family tokkelwerk. Uiteindelijk kreeg hij een 12-snarige gitaar van zijn vader en die gitaar is nog altijd zijn belangrijkste gitaar. Het echte instrument van zijn vader was de banjo, die hij bespeelde in de ‘clawhammer’ stijl. Hunter raakte op den duur geïnteresseerd in dit instrument en de clawhammer speelstijl en dat instrument bespeelt hij op de meeste nummers van de bovenstaande twee cd’s. De eerste cd, Sings Songs For The Masses, bevat solo-opnamen uit de jaren 2001-2007. Hunter bespeelt naast de banjo een keur aan andere instrumenten, uiteraard ook zijn 12-snarige gitaar. Van de 14 nummers zijn er 7 traditionals (waaronder bekende nummers als Pretty Polly, Soldier’s Joy en Bonaparte’s Retreat), 6 van de hand van Hunter en het nummer Red Wing van Mills/Chattaway. De muziek is traditioneel, lees begin 20e eeuw, Hunter’s zang is heel apart en past wonderwel goed bij zijn muziek. Een geluid dat diep uit zijn keel komt en klinkt alsof hij te lang onder de grond heeft gezeten in een kolenmijn, behoorlijk gruizig dus. Maar o zo passend. Hunter, die sinds mei van dit jaar (na een verblijf op Kreta om een oud dorpshuis te restaureren en vervolgens in Vermont in de USA) weer een onderkomen in Frankrijk heeft (dicht bij de Zwitserse grens) heeft afgelopen september een duet cd uitgebracht met de fiddler Casey Joe Abair, die hij tijdens zijn verblijf in Vermont had leren kennen. Abair is behalve fiddler ook een goede bluesgitarist en een uitstekend vertolker van Ierse muziek op fiddle en melodeon. Op deze in de eigen huiskamers van de heren in Vermont opgenomen cd staan 17 traditionals die allen in duetvorm worden gespeeld, old-timey fiddle/banjo duets, zoals men dat in de Appalachians placht (en ook pleegt) te doen. Op een paar nummers is er hulp van buitenaf, Hunters Franse vrouw Féréale (is dat zo?) zingt op een drietal nummers mee en ene Josh Neilson doet ‘stomping’ in Ducks On The Millpond. Ook deze cd ademt de sfeer van ruim een eeuw terug en kent een aantal bekende nummers: wederom Bonaparte’s Retreat, maar ook The Coo Coo, Old Joe Clark, Sail Away Ladies, In The Pines en Lonesome John. Het is verrassend originele muziek die is te horen op beide cd’s. Ga eens luisteren naar deze sympathieke Schots/Amerikaanse Fransman of Schots/Franse Amerikaan Beide cd-verpakkingen zijn voorzien van technische informatie over de instrumenten en de gebruikte stemming (FS) - Fred Schmale for MazzMusikaS
From Bluegrass Bühne - Old-Time & Bluegrass Magazine (Dec./Jan. 2009/10, No. 174). (The same issue also had a separate article on me. Thanks guys!):
Hunter ist mit seinem Old Time Banjo solo in Voorthuizen und in La Roche-sur-Foron aufgetreten, er lebt jetzt in Frankreich; diese CD hat er in den USA mit einem befreundeten Old Time Fiddler aus Vermont aufgenommen. Die meisten Titel kennen wir aus dem üblichen Repertoire dieses Genres, sie einzeln aufzuführen ist nicht immer sinnvoll, denn zu manchen Titeln gibt es mehrere Melodien und die gleiche Melodie hat mehrere Titel, nennen wir hier “Sail away Ladies”, anderswo heißt das auch “Sally Ann”, “Don't you rock me daddy-o” usw. Der “Devil's dream,” hier hat nicht die von Bill Keith u. a. bekannte Melodie, “Run slave run” war vor der Erfindung der political correctness “Run nigger run”, “Coo coo” ist nicht das Lied mit “She's a pretty bird... ”. Andererseits haben sie oft ihre Individualität, man kann viele leicht wiedererkennen. Die Quelle ist immer angegeben, ebenso die jeweilige Stimmung von Banjo und Geige, teilweise spielt er ein bundloses Fivestring. Hunter singt auch mit einer ungewöhnlich tiefen, rauen Stimme, manchmal begleitet von seiner Frau Féréale. Was jedem ins Ohr fällt, sind Tempo und Temperament der Interpretation, die beiden schaffen zu zweit einen überraschend kompakten Klang und meistens eine halsbrecherische Geschwindigkeit, die so nicht sein muss, aber kann und darf. Wir finden Authentizität, Verständnis für und Respekt vor der Musik, die sie spielen. Kontakt: www.hunterrobertson.com - Bluegrass Bühne witten by Eberhard Finke
From Tony Spadaro, aka Old Woodchuck, over at Rocket Science Banjo:
“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.” - Old Woodchuck, Rocket Science Banjo
From Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be:
“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 Albair 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…” - Gadaya, Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be
From Rambles.NET, by the ever astute Jerome Clark:
“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.” - Jerome Clark, Rambles.NET
Sings Songs for the Masses
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)
"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
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)
The Old-Time Herald review
"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."
- Pete Peterson writing for The Old-Time Herald (vol. 11, no. 5)
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.
Musical Traditions review
- Rod Stradling - Musical Traditions (go there for the full review)
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.
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)
~ "Hunter's delivery is raw and archaic. I don't know what the masses say, I guess they take it rather indifferently, but so mustn't we." - FolkWorld (Germany)
~ “I like your tunes very much... I won't say they're "the real stuff", 'cause this is a quite ungrounded cliché. It's that mixture of rawness and tenderness and the feeling that you love on different levels whatever you are engaged in when playing.” - Low Down Nick
~ "Hunter Robertson's banjo-driven score is apt accompaniment for doc's emotional highs and lows."
~ "That's some dirty stompin downhome stuff! Damn." - A.S.
~ "Reminds me of a modern Dock Boggs with a kazoo and a drum!" - D.L.
~ "...you have plenty of talent! “Sings Songs” is a beautiful record, honest and true to the spirit of deep blues, but at the same time so full of you, your emotions and personal experiences evident in rhythmic and melodic nuances of your playing. From banjo, through guitar, to plucked opus (which is new to my ears), I like it all. Some people say that you need to look into the future to keep things interesting. I see it in a different way. Digging deeper is interesting and it is exactly what you do. Congratulations!"
~ "...some fine pickin—clawhammer, gut-string fretless, & tin-can banjo, 12 string guitar, old-school sounding vox + kazoo too! Excellent. Sounds ancient. Play!"
- Kimberly, WRUV's Folk Music Director
~ “…sounds like what oldtime music would sound like if it was played by Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart. Great stuff.” - T.D.
~ "hunter takes me away in his world of dark ,hard stomping blues,wailing banjo tunes,with his husky deep voice tom waits would be jealously.far and away the best of old-time,raw,wild and melancholic ......"~ "Banjos are capable of a wide range of styles and moods and I enjoy them all - but the thing that will grab me every time is a haunting melody supported by a banjo that is full of conviction and growl. With a range of old time clawhammer and finger styles and low gravelly vocals, Hunter Robertson Sings Songs for the Masses fills my need for moving, haunting banjo perfectly. The songs have the feeling of old field recordings in that most are one take tunes without the sterile touch of heavy post production mixing and over dubbing. Just Hunter, his instrument, and his voice. His version of "Redwing" is the first, and only, that I have heard that matches the mood of the music with the subject of the lyrics, and it changed forever how I think of the song. "You Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" breaks out the slide and demonstrates that the banjo can sing the blues with the best of them. Throw in some gut-stringed fretless, a little 12-stringed guitar, and a smattering of kazoo and opus and the result is a great CD that breaks a lot of people's idea of what "banjo music" is."
- Yopparai Kyabetsu. Check out Yopp's videos of his homemade banjos.