Grace van’t Hof and Conner Vlietstra — a.k.a. Sinner Friends — take their traditions seriously. Both musicians are seeped in the sounds of vintage bluegrass and the seminal styles of country, ragtime, Gospel, and other musical forms culled from old-time authenticity.
Of the two, van’t Hof boasts the richest resume, having been one of the founders of Della Mae and Bill and the Belles, not to mention a touring member of Chris Jones & the Night Drivers.
No slouch himself, multi-instrumentalist Vlietstra has a playing pedigree that includes his current studies in the music program at East Tennessee State University, and a recent invitation to play guitar for Rebel Records recording band The Price Sisters. Yet it’s the pair’s kinship and combined dynamic that elevates their efforts and finds them solidly in sync. It’s an approach that eschews any hint of a modern musical form, which makes their striking new EP, Miss You, sound like something culled from a collection of field songs, all of Appalachian origin.
For the most part, Miss You consists of classic covers — the archaic blues classic Pride of Man, the southern standard, Miss the Mississippi and You, the Louvin Brothers’ timeless tale of heartbreak and betrayal, While You’re Cheating on Me, and Page Ross’ hymn of pure unfettered devotion, Unforgivable You. Only one original graces the six song set — Santa is Real, a spiritual of sorts that finds common ground between secular and spiritual sensibilities while managing to convey the absolute conviction inherent in each. Indeed, it makes the case that Santa Claus is deserving of more reverence and respect beyond what he receives from his innocent adolescent admirers.
Nevertheless, there’s more tenderness than tenacity to be found here, making Sinner Friends a somewhat misleading moniker for the duo overall. Indeed, their devotion runs deep, fostered by astute musicianship and and an obvious affinity for these classic conceits. The pair may emphasize a mournful muse, but that in turn assures astute authenticity. That said, the sprightly instrumental, Sweet Lizzie, offers an opportunity for them to fully demonstrate their chops in a joyful and jubilant way. Indeed, van’t Hof’s kazoo not only ensures the charm, but also provides proof that fun and finesse can go arm in arm.
Clearly, there’s no sin in suggesting that.