Although ostensibly an example of fiddle finesse — and a lavish one at that — Mike Barnett’s Portraits In Fiddles is more akin to a well organzied superstar jam, with notables such as Divid Grisman, Tim O’Brien, Bryan Sutton, Michael Dawes, Tony Trischka, Buddy Spicher, David Grier, Bobby Hicks, Noam Pikelny, Mike Bub, and Stuart Duncan lending their talents to these exceptional proceedings. Indeed, it comes across like a big screen cast of thousands — at least in audio terms — and while this gathering of talent creates some remarkable revelry, the music they make exceeds any need for hype or pretence. Likewise, though the majority of tracks here are instrumental offerings, there’s enough versatility and variety to ensure a remarkably rousing display.
That’s evident at the outset. Although most of the offerings fall into the categories of traditional tunes or well-worn standards, the origins generally matter less than the execution. The instrumental interplay evident on Old Barnes and the deft picking and precise delivery of Hangman Reel are the result not only of some impressive individual efforts, but the work of a closely knit ensemble.
The traces of classic folk and the stuff of archival origins found in these melodies are affecting as well, albeit in different ways. The mournful Mom and Dad’s Waltz and the Anglophile tones of Mary and the Soldier delve into tender and touching sentiments that frequently contrast with the pure joy and jubilation of songs such as Dixie Hoedown, Fiddle Patch and Fox Chase.
To accentuate that authenticity, several of the players offer their reflections and recollections about the music and the memories that accompany them. The commentaries bring the spirit and sentiment front and center, with songs such as Tennessee Waltz and Waiting on Vassar taking on special significance through the backstories that enhance them. Likewise, the same thing happens when David Grisman and Jesse McReynolds talk about the craft and creativity that goes into the making of their music.
In essence, Portraits in Fiddles is more than an example of a hallowed style with an adept delivery. Barnett’s generosity in allowing these veteran players to practically steal his show makes this a master class that students of bluegrass, grassicana and modern Americana can relish and appreciate as art forms all their own. If there’s any truth to the old adage that we’re best judged by the company we keep, suffice it to say Barnett’s surrounds himself with a group of players that, by every standard, rank among the best of their breed.