The Black Twig Pickers - "Crossing The James" (Hobo Handshake)
Americana has consistently flitted in and out of the consciousness of the listening public—from Beggars Banquet to No Depression to the current crop of folkified youngsters. Yet it’s often informed by, or reacting against, the sounds around it: the Stones’ southern lusts, Uncle Tupelo’s Midwestern angst, the back-to-the-earth vibing of any number of college town hippies. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, old-time music’s greatest publicity flash, was a Grammy-winning best-seller spun off from a blockbuster flick starring one of the world’s best-paid film stars.
What does all of this have to do with the Black Twig Pickers? Nothing. And that’s exactly the point. The Twigs’ interest in roots music is divorced from rock ’n’ roll styling or the intentions of the period piece. The spark here comes from the feeling of sitting around a cabin porch with a bunch of friends, picking on songs that are older than the branches swaying overhead.
The Black Twig Pickers hail from the Southwestern corner of West Virginia and play the type of music that has long seeped from the surrounding hills. The roots of old time, country blues and Appalachian folk run deep in that neck of the woods and the band – currently the trio of Isak Howell, Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles – are fine purveyors of the mountain laments and sawdust shuffles that compose the area’s musical canon.
Hobo Handshake, the group’s fourth release on VHF Records, finds the trio digging in to dusty covers and equally mud-flecked originals. The record is bookended by two versions of “Crossing the James.” The first cut bounds along with Howell’s guitar nipping at the heels of Gangloff’s banjo; the second is a late-summer simmer of solo baritone banjo.
“Cherry River Lane” toes the line between bent-head ballad and redemptive spiritual. “Last Kind Words Blues” was recorded with the band gathered around a wood stove and features 12-string and vocals courtesy of Duluth guitarist Charlie Parr. Gangloff steps to the center on “Callahan,” ripping eerie mountain cries out of his aged fiddle. And in a border-hopping late-record move, the group casts the Portuguese East African “P.E.A. Vine Blues” into a kazoogle and slide-guitar fronted march.
The album closes with the sound of crickets and birds and what could be the quiet clomps of the musicians packing up their instruments and turning in. It’s a fitting image and the listener can easily imagine the scene as the sun sinks below the Blue Ridge and these grand American songs fade into the creeping dusk.