In truth, it’s much more of a Van Manakas than Butch Baldassari project. 12 of the 17 tracks are tunes he wrote, and his guitar is the featured instrument, kicking off all of the songs. Butch does perform on the CD, one of the very last on which he participated before his cancer prevented him from playing, and his mandolin is strong and clear throughout.
But it really is a Manakas CD, and a mighty fine one indeed. I can’t remember the last time I found such immediate and inescapable joy from a new album on first hearing, and it is just as pleasing on repeated listenings.
Leavin’ Tennessee is structured as a guitar album, but the music is more reminiscent of a 1970s Kenny Baker album than your average, 21st century flatpicking CD. Van writes in the fiddle tune mode, and his compositions are airy, jaunty and delightful. For a guy who studied jazz at Berklee and performed in that idiom for many years, it is quite striking to see how well he has also mastered and wholly internalized the fiddle music that informs bluegrass music. A few of his tunes seems most definitely to be Bakeresque, while others come across like they could be from the Monroe repertoire – and it has always struck me as more difficult to write instrumental music that could pass for a recently-discovered gem from the 50s than a hot, crazy, modern tune.
Here’s a listen to the title track, which opens the CD. Assisting are Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Scott Vestal on banjo, Baldassari on mandolin and Byron House on bass.
Leavin’ Tennessee: [http://www.soundartrecordings.com/audio/LeavinTennessee.mp3]
He also covers Bluegrass In The Backwoods, widely regarded as Kenny Baker’s masterpiece, as a guitar tune. Manakas both quotes Baker’s melody faithfully and stretches it out as best suits the six string.
Bluegrass In The Backwoods: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/bitbw.mp3]
Other studio players include Shad Cobb, Barbara Lamb and Bobby Hicks on fiddle and anyone who enjoys fiddle music is bound to appreciate this album. You can hear excerpts from each of the 17 tracks at CD Baby.
In the liner notes, Manakas shares how he and Butch first met in the 1970s at a Carlton Haney festival, and that they remained friends up until Butch’s passing in 2009. Through a career in jazz, Van always kept bluegrass music in his heart and after American Guitar, his critically-acclaimed electric country guitar album in 2000, he had a hankering to record on acoustic.
Manakas closes his brief tribute with this heartfelt sentiment:
“I bounced this material off of Butch and he generously would play it with me, encouraged me to write and offered suggestions. The title of this project was first a working title. Shortly after it was finished, I did in fact leave Tennessee, and a few sad years later Butch did, too, although his music and spirit continue. I heard someone say that your station in heaven is in proportion to the good deeds in your lifetime. In that case, Butch has a seat next to the Big Mon, and I don’t mean Bill Monroe.”
So long Butch, and fare thee well. We barely knew you
And welcome Van – don’t be a stranger!