Don’t get me wrong, I love the Grascals. And while I love a lot of things about Kristin Scott Benson’s new solo project, Stringworks, one of the things I love best about it that it doesn’t sound like the band that she’s such an integral part of.
Of course, Stringworks shows off Benson’s mastery of the banjo, from the fasten-your-seatbelt drive of Great Waterton, the CD’s opening number, to the slow cascade of notes on Travelers Rest.
And while I’m not a fan of self-produced records – there’s always room for another set of ears not so wedded to the music – she proves to be the exception to my rule. In fact, I haven’t heard a project so incredibly well arranged and produced since Flatt Lonesome’s Runaway Train a year ago. There’s a nice mix of instrumentals and vocals, with picking and singing by some of the best of the business. Even a bit of sleight of hand, which made me skeptical when I heard about it, works. More about that later.
When I listen to a new project, I don’t take notes the first time through. On subsequent listens I jot down reminders of what I like (or don’t like) and I put in a star in the margin to call attention to songs I want to be sure to comment on. Many CDs wind up with three, maybe four songs that are starred. Stringworks has so many that my notes started to look like a flag.
The magic starts right at the top, with Benson’s Great Waterton. It’s the perfect kickoff, setting the table for what’s to come, with Benson’s five-string, Jim VanCleve’s fiddle, and Wayne Benson’s mandolin off and running, kept in line by Tim Surrett’s tasteful bass notes and Cody Kilby’s ornate but not overdone guitar runs.
While you catch your breath, Claire Lynch milks the vocal emotion out of When Fall Comes to New England, written by the esteemed Cheryl Wheeler.
There’s not a filler song to be found among these 12, but I do want single out four others for attention.
The first is Eagle Eye Annie, written by Kristin and named for Opie’s favorite fishing pole on the Andy Griffith Show. This is toe-tapping, time-wasting music, perfect for a late summer day with a little hint of fall in the air (as there is as I sit on the deck writing this). This song is perfectly named, and it expertly frames the entire project because both the song and the CD evoke memories of a simpler time, when boys not only went fishing but named their favorite rods. (Some of us have graduated to naming our basses and our guitars, but I digress.)
Next is All I Want Is You, a Flatt & Scruggs chestnut adroitly interpreted vocally by Chris Jones (and featuring Adam Haynes on fiddle).
Of course, it wouldn’t be a bluegrass banjo project without a nod or two to Earl Scruggs. Here, it’s in the form of an uptempo version of Farewell Blues.
The final song I have room to mention – I could easily devote space to them all – is a remarkable rendition of Foggy Mountain Top that marries an early 1940s recording of a radio performance by Whitey & Hogan, featuring her grandfather on mandolin and tenor vocals, and a 2016 studio performance by Kristin and her album band. I was a doubter, partly because the idea brought to mind posthumous “duets” with Ray Charles and other musical giants in which the living artists seem to be along for the ride – and the paycheck.
But here again, Benson’s production values save the day. She doesn’t perform “with” her late grandfather. Instead, she uses the instantly recognizable chorus of the radio recording as an introduction of her fine version. “It’s such a treat that technology allowed us to play music together again,” she writes in the song notes.
This whole Mountain Home Music Company CD is a treat, offering a brief respite from deadlines and commitments and allowing a busy mind to drift back in time. As my pesky day job as a political writer grinds me down, I have a feeling I’ll try to grab that respite often in the days ahead.