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R. Keenan Lawler - Music for the Bluegrass States

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Artist: R. Keenan Lawler

Album: Music for the Bluegrass States

Label: Xeric

Review date: Feb. 16, 2007

Strange to think that, in the space of a little over 10 years, a record collector from Takoma Park, Maryland, would go from being an overweight dude in wayfarers who’d pawned his guitar for gas station pistachio money to an avatar of the American avant-garde. These images, of course, come from the stories told about the man in the steady stream of articles that began to appear in the mid-’90s, stories already embedded in John Fahey’s ‘forgotten figurehead’ status. Despite the fact that his CV extends back 25 years, at this point any discussion of R. Keenan Lawler’s work, for better or worse, has to pass through the pillars of innovative guitar wrangling: Fahey and Derek Bailey. While Music for the Bluegrass States’ seven tracks are in explicit dialogue with Bailey’s crack jazz serialist MO and Fahey’s bluegrass ragas, the space these artists open up for Lawler to explore ends up being much more significant than the space they occupy within his language.

As the album art makes clear, the album is deeply rooted in place. The clever and subtle mise-en-abîme of the cover photo – which depicts a corner in one of Louisville’s bohemian neighborhoods – suggests what the music bears out: the album is both an attempt at mapping something both incredibly specific and yet somehow ubiquitous. In this case, it’s a run through the sonic palette of bluegrass music that lands us in the liminal zone between the urban, the rural, and the suburban, between avant-garde ‘incoherence’ and the comfort of traditional music.

Recorded live in Louisville in 2006, the album manifests as a series of solo exercises on the steel-string resonator guitar central to traditional bluegrass. Ironically, Lawler's playing style on a guitar named for the depth and clarity of its tone revolves around the metallic, truncated tone of a string buzzing against the fretboard. These on-purpose mistakes suggest more than they actually articulate, and on tracks like "A Universal Rose,” Lawler manages to construct something both as sturdy as James Blackshaw's sprawling, burnished 12-string arabesques and as subtly colored as Fahey’s fake American anthropology. Riding as it does on the interplay between vibration and pattern, Lawler’s guitar evokes a sense of both the sprawling suburban spaces glimpsed from the freeway and the claustrophobic dioramas of American history, overpopulated with ghosts and half-occluded histories.

Lawler’s album is paced carefully so that each of the first three tracks is longer than the last, while each of the album’s final three tracks is shorter than the previous. The sine-wave sequencing of the album feels less like the kind of pathos-filled avant-hillbilly epic you might expect and more like a humid stroll through the ’burbs. These tracks can’t help but feel like both warm-ups/cool downs and preliminary studies/reworkings of the album’s centerpiece, the 26-minute “The Air on Mars Is Hard to Breathe, We’ll Just Have to Stay in Louisville.” The track is both heavy and deliberate, but shies away from turgidity thanks to Lawler’s most fascinating quality: the ability to conjure tones, shades, and an uncanny amount of depth from squelched notes. The song opens with a limpid purple drone as Lawler draws a bow across his guitar’s neck, but before Tony Conrad comparisons kick in, he starts knocking out notes that, while they aren’t fully voiced, have the kind of transitory intensity of a clumsy watercolor. The formal possibilities of Lawler’s instrument play a major role in determining the album’s symmetry. Album opener “That Train Has Already Left the Station,” is probably Music for the Bluegrass States’ prickliest, with its languorous, doubled notes that fan out around the edges into full spectrums, like the two rainbows of the cover photo.

The closest Lawler comes to Fahey is in the latter part of “1930,” which begins with high lonesome notes that slightly wince under the pressure of his slide, then slowly crystallize into a freewheeling cascade of figures. But while Fahey’s phraseology allowed each passage to stretch out, breathe, and merge into the next, the faster parts of Lawler’s playing reveal figures that emerge from other figures, melodies that aren’t quite, because they occupy both the negative and positive space of the song. Much could be written about this clamoring polyphony in the context of bluegrass music’s own gnarled history or the red state/blue state divide that the album’s title indirectly references, but one gets the feeling that Lawler’s not too big on words. Just colors.

By Brandon Bussolini

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