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MP3 Butch Ross - A Long Way From Shady Grove

Contemporary arrangements of old-time traditional and original tunes done by a master of the mountain dulcimer.

14 MP3 Songs in this album (46:16) !
Related styles: Folk: Alternative Folk, Country: Old-Timey, Type: Instrumental

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Old Art in a New Frame
By richard winham, phD

The new album by mountain dulcimer player Butch Ross, A Long Way From Shady Grove, opens with someone nervously twisting the tuner on an old radio with a very scratchy little speaker. Each stop, it turns out, is a brief snippet of the original songs Butch used as a starting point for the tracks on the album—everything from an unaccompanied traditional folk singer to The Beatles.

After tuning through the songs, the unseen listener settles on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The song’s opening chorus, with its rangy guitar and languid swing, slowly morphs into the old-time fiddle tune, “Spotted Pony.” Ross picks out the simple, circular melody against the steady pulse of a sampled drum and bass, while the importation of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lazy swing gives the tune an entirely different feel from the rather rigid pulse of the original.

Later on in the album, he takes The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and turns it into a thunderous tour de force on the tiny instrument he once described as a “stretched-out violin.” If Eddie Van Halen had chosen the mountain dulcimer, he might well have played it this way: hammering on the strings, rigorously accenting the staccato rhythm of the original. It’s a refreshingly novel arrangement resulting from a range of influences, including the jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, dulcimer master Dan Landrum, acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke (who used a similar technique on a tune called “I Yell At Traffic”) and “Roundabout” by Yes.

This is not your grandfather’s folk music.

“I have always been interested in re-contextualizing the traditional tunes,” Ross says. “This is all living music, vibrant music. Part of my job,” he continues with a wry smile, “is to put it in the now.”

Butch Ross is not the first person to take these ancient texts and gussy them up with contemporary production techniques. Moby is perhaps the best-known practitioner of the art, exemplified in his hugely successful album, Play, released almost 10 years ago now. In fact, a short clip from one of the songs on Play shows up in the opening collage on Ross’s album. Another influence is DJ Shadow, one of many so-called “crate diggers”—aficionados who wade through mountains of discarded vinyl records in search of the perfect melodic or rhythmic hook from a long-forgotten song. Those tiny little slivers of sound are then painstakingly combined to create an entirely new piece that retains the feel of the original, while adding a uniquely 21st-century sheen.

The album closes with Ross’s take on the ancient tale of “Shady Grove.” His arrangement of the gently lilting melody is anchored by a crunchy, industrial drum loop. The rumbling, repetitious rhythm is the electronic equivalent of a steam shovel. Over that he sets a nimble bass line and the dancing, tinkling strings of a ''citera'', a traditional Hungarian instrument that is the mountain dulcimer’s more primitive cousin. The result is akin to the sound of rain on a tin roof during a summer thunderstorm. In their way, these old tunes in new frames are equally unexpected and refreshing.

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