Rootsier than Roots Music

The Kim Beggs and Natalie Edelson duo, The Blue Warblers, has landed the two singer-songwriters a West Coast Music Award nomination in an unlikely category: Contemporary Christian/Gospel Recording of the Year, for their album, Pretty Good.

This nomination reflects the genre of music, not the inspiration.

Most of the songs on the album are standards in early Americana, what’s commonly known as Southern Gospel, the pre-country, pre-bluegrass Appalachian music made popular by The Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatts and Doc Watson.

While some songs in this genre are overtly Christian, many of them are love songs, blues, murder ballads—all the good stuff we’d expect from American folk songs.

This is where Beggs and Edelson come in. With traditional accompaniment of guitar (Beggs), banjo (Edelson), thigh-slaps (Beggs), fiddle (Jesse Zubot), harmonica (George McConkey) and mandolin (Bob Hamilton), they harmonize on old standards such as “Sail Away Ladies” and “Angeline the Baker”.

Their approach is anything but traditional. In a way, it’s rootsier than roots music. Rather than the four-part harmony of most bluegrass, Beggs and Edelson stick to two parts, still achieving that distinctive vocal style.

And though the instruments may be traditional, the arrangements are stripped down, more basic. Often, there’s just guitar and banjo.

The more elaborate songs have only one guest musician, demonstrating their skill without overpowering the vocal, as McConkey adeptly demonstrates on “Little Birdie”.

“Sail Away Ladies” is performed by Beggs and Edelson alone, accompanied by banjo and slaps. Yet the song sounds full, as though performed by a whole band. And with their harmonies on the chorus, “Don’t she rock ’em Daddy-o”, it’s easy to see how this music led to the rock ‘n’ roll sound of the 1950s.

They’ve also rearranged the songs. With “Ain’t Gonna Work Waltz”, Beggs changes the rhythm and tempo of the familiar song, previously recorded on her Wanderer’s Paean album, turning this jaunty melody into a quiet waltz.

In addition to the standards, Beggs and Edelson have recorded some original songs, adding a definite northern flavour to southern music.

“Don’t Sleep Down By the River Tonight”, Beggs’s offering, perhaps the most successful at replicating traditional Americana sound, warns not to pass out in the cold, while advising, “Gotta get down, knees to the tundra/Pray he’s not going to pull me under”.

Edelson’s contributions, “Icy Waterfall” and “Let the Rain”, are folksier, and also use northern images.

“Icy Waterfall” contrasts summer and winter in a blues, while “Let the Rain” is a jaunty song about the end of a relationship, set on Squatter’s Row: “Cabin was a fitting room/Where we tried each other on”.

Beggs and Edelson also honour two more contemporary songwriters who recently passed: Buddy Tabor and Hazel J. Dickens.

Both raised in the South, their songs are examples of more modern Appalachian music, which Tabor carried with him to his home in Alaska. Edelson sings lead on Tabor’s “My Sweet Liza Jane”, while Beggs takes the lead on Dickens’s “West Virginia, My Home”.

In addition to the WCMA nomination in the Gospel category, Beggs has also been nominated for Album Design of the Year.

The CD cover shows their very simple stage plot: guitar and banjo with DIs, a rug, an electric wood stove and an electric lamp.

That says a lot about this album—traditional instruments with modern touches to produce a sound beautifully simple and comfortable.

Outstanding Tracks: “Sail Away, Ladies” and “Don’t Sleep Down By the River Tonight”

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