There’s something to be said about traditional music. Real traditional music, not the kind of sound that’s attempted for interpretation only or used as some sort of commercial cash cow. Kudos then to Kim and Quillan Roe for turning their love and fascination for Appalachian music and other forms of American expression into a set of songs that not only ring with authenticity, but also a sound brewed in the American heartland. Several of these offerings date back a century or so – and in one case, the old English folk ballad, Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden from 1822 – even further.
Sprung from humble beginnings and inspired by the musical union of Johnny and June – Cash, that is – the Roe Family Singers approach their craft with a love and appreciation that’s burned into their DNA. Kim learned these archival sounds from her father, and then started singing them as hymns in church. Quillan is the descendent of Appalachian and Ozark fiddle players on his mother’s side, and poets, writers and evangelists on his dad’s side, and he himself has been a professional musician for the past 25 years.
Although they have mastered the basics between them – showing themselves adept on vocals, autoharp, washboard, banjo and archtop guitar – the Roes also enlisted a sturdy cast of support players to help fully mine their MO. So while some songs – the aforementioned Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden and the sprightly Ol’ Rattler in particular – subsist solely on banjo, other songs ply their traditional trappings in ways that make them sound anything but spare. The rousing Ida Red, for example, is all but guaranteed to get feet tapping, while the haunting John the Messenger, a Roe original, garners its auspicious approach from a spooky musical saw that’s plied throughout. When the couple wails in harmony on Rank Strangers to Me, they not only bring back echoes of the tenuous trappings of America’s past, but also find a contemporary connection as well.
It’s those subtle but assured arrangements that give this combination of revered classics and Roe Family Singers originals its home-brewed finesse. Having won the prestigious McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians in 2011, there’s little doubt that this couple are not only fully capable of making more well defined Americana music, and imbuing it with authenticity in ways both accessible and enduring.
As a final coda, Songs of the Mountains, Songs of the Plains culminates with a selection that still serves as true populist anthem some 80 years after it was written. Indeed, Woody Guthrie’s enduring “This Land is Your Land” resonates now as much now as it did in the Dustbowl years. It’s yet another reason to credit this remarkable couple with keeping that rich folk legacy alive with a pluck and a strum.