Winning the award for unique traditional music band name of the month is Wisconsin-based duo The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers. Nikki Grossman and Joe Hart bill themselves as “a brand-new take on old-time country,” and their newest release, a twelve song (plus one bonus track) collection titled Ocooch Mountain Home, delivers on that promise. Pulling from almost every style of popular and folk music from the 1920s and 1930s, Grossman and Hart have done a fine job capturing the sound of the early years of records and radio.
Eight of the songs here are originals, with most of those written by both members of the group. The variety of styles here – even on the originals – is a testament to the duo’s grasp of old-timey music. Grossman’s jazzy fiddle opens up Get a Good Grip On My Heart, though it takes a back seat to accordion from guest Patrick Harison throughout the verses. It’s a sweet love song that’s performed as a duet. The pair’s phrasing, tone, and other vocal stylings are straight out of 1920s popular music, with Grossman adding vocal embellishments as a contrast to Hart’s more straightforward delivery. The Broke (Ass) Waltz, on the other hand, has an Appalachian/old-time country brother duet feel, with plaintive vocals set to stripped down guitar and fiddle. The number sounds like something that could have been pulled from the Bristol Sessions, though the tongue-in-cheek title plants it more firmly in the present.
Hart wrote The Crazy Rag, a humorous love song that, with its use of kazoo and lines like “I would dress up like my grandma, go to church in her pajamas, eat my eggs and bacon in the pew,” should probably be referred to as a novelty song. However, it doesn’t seem to be performed just for humor, but also in appreciation of vaudeville traditions. Ghost of the St. Louis Blues, one of the few covers on the album, is actually pulled from vaudeville, specifically the minstrel show performer Emmett Miller (who, interestingly enough, was also the first person to record Lovesick Blues). The version here sounds remarkably similar to Miller’s late 1920s rendition, and its creepy opening will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched an old scary movie.
Goodman’s fiddle gets to shine on original instrumentals Patt and Otto’s Waltz (a country-style waltz with a western feel) and Toothbrush Ho-Down, which sounds a bit like an Appalachian fiddler player met up with a German polka musician (in a good way, of course). Of course, there is a polka on the album as well, the appropriately-titled album closer The Goodbye Polka, in which lovers lament having to leave one another.
The title track has a Carter Family feel to it, thanks to the guitar rhythm and runs, interwoven harmonies, and the lyrics that speak of the simple pleasures that come from reaching home. Hart and Grossman’s Ocooch Mountains, located in northwest Wisconsin, are a far piece from the Carter’s Poor Valley in southwest Virginia, but the sentiments are definitely the same. The song closes with some fine yodeling.
Another enjoyable number – and one that’s a bit unusual, given the theme of the rest of the album – is Kiss Away, a 1960s pop number written by Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton that was once recorded by Tammy Wynette. The arrangement here is simple, with just guitar, Goodman’s voice, and brief harmonies from Hart. Goodman shows off another facet of her voice, taking on a jazzy, Norah Jones sound here.
Despite their humorous name, The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are talented musicians and vocalists. They really don’t sound like anything else I’ve heard recently, and throughout the album, they seem to be having a great time singing and playing. Their grasp of such a variety of styles is impressive, and though their music won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s definitely a unique, enjoyable take on old-time music, embracing a desire for authenticity and staying light-hearted at the same time.
For more information on the duo, visit their website at www.sapsuckersmusic.com. Their new album can be purchased from a variety of online music retailers.