There are a couple of broad hints that suggest listeners are in for something different on the new EP from Stetson Adkisson and Cia Cherryholmes, which is titled Stetson & Cia.
The first is a quotation on the CD jacket from Frederic Chopin: “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”
The second is the credits, listing Cia on banjo and vocals, Stetson on guitar and vocals, and Cia’s sister Molly on the only other instruments heard – sparingly – on this eight-song project: Piano, cello, violin, octave violin and drums.
Some listeners who followed Cia as she perfected her bluegrass chops in her now-retired family band, Cherryholmes, will, no doubt, be disappointed because this isn’t bluegrass. I can almost “hear” the comments questioning why Bluegrass Today is reviewing such a project.
Here’s why: This is terrific music, no matter what you want to call it, from a duo that is well grounded in bluegrass, Americana and acoustic music. From start to finish, the eight songs – all written by Stetson and Cia – feature all the hallmarks of great duo performances – writing that is rich in imagery and emotion, top-notch harmonies and expressive picking.
I wouldn’t be surprised if even the most hard-line bluegrass purists – you know who you are – will want to hear more after listening to Stetson’s chilling lament on The Heart of Me or Cia’s frustration on I’m Not The One.
Most of the songs, including those two, come from the darker side of relationships, and for a good reason.
“You’ll hear a lot of writers talk about how the sad songs are easier to come up with,” Cia said in an email. “We agree!” She also noted that writing from the perspective of both genders “is a plus, hopefully making them more reliable for everyone.”
When you’re playing as a duo, there’s really no place to hide. Cliched writing and mediocre picking and singing are exposed and on full public display. Nothing of the sort is found on this project.
There’s certainly no mediocre picking here. Cia masterfully matches her banjo work to the emotions of the song, most notably with her mournful line on Folded Arms. And Stetson’s guitar playing fills space nicely, moving from mandolin-like chops to full melodies with ease. Molly Cherryholmes, too, adds just the right spice. Her cello work on It’s Been Too Long is exquisite, and the piano and percussion on a few other songs blends in the way spices work in a refined recipe – adding taste without overpowering the final product.
And the vocals? On some of these songs, Stetson and Cia are a nearly perfect fit, as if they have been singing together for many years.
It will be interesting – some day, maybe – to hear what these two talented musicians can come up with working with a full band on a full-length project. But the minimalist approach on this CD is a welcome, artful, respite. And, they point out, it serves several purposes.
For one thing, Cia said, “With fewer instruments, it puts more focus on the voices and words.”
But there’s practical reason, too, as she explained.
“We … wanted people to know exactly what they were getting with us. We are doing shows with just the two us and wanted our EP to be a good representation of what we really are. It also makes touring so much easier!”