Steel & Wood make no apologies for the fact that they tap the tradition as far as their music is concerned. The only misnomer lies in the fact that the name of their new album — Along The Track is subtitled Bluegrass of Northern Michigan. The fact is, most of these seminal songs are universal in their reach, each an inherent additive in the make-up of American folk music. Indeed, Man of Constant Sorrow, In the Pines, Darlin’ Corey and Turkey in the Straw are part and parcel of essential Americana, contained within the basics of bluegrass, whether sprung from Appalachia or the Ozarks, or, for that matter, any realm in-between.
As if providing proof, the band — John A. Nelswander (guitar, vocals), Irene Kazmers (fiddle, guitar, vocals), Bruce Walker (mandolin, vocals) and John Hussey (upright bass) — make no attempt to stray from its original imprint, or any original arrangement. There’s far more wood than steel at work here, with absolutely no embellishment added. As a result, the music comes across precisely like it was originally performed, complete with homespun harmonies, a back porch banter, and the precise picking as originally applied. Granted, it seems out of sync with modern contrivance, but that makes the essential charm all the more striking. As a result, these 16 songs provide a reassuring respite from the complexities and complications of today’s increasingly complicated world.
Of course, anyone familiar with arcane and archival music also knows that it wasn’t always celebratory, and, in fact, often reflected the hardships, adversities, and missteps suffered by those trying to carve a life from frequently hostile environs. One need only hear such telling lyrics as “In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines,” or something as downcast and demonstrative as, “I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all my day,” to sense all the implications.
So credit Steel & Wood with conveying these songs with the authenticity and awareness that make for essential elements in this rootsy regimen. Along The Track is a textbook lesson in both credence and conviction.