Monday, June 8, 2009

Jeremy Garrett: I Am a Stranger - CD Review

Jeremy Garrett has crafted a pleasing solo CD which, as is the case with these projects, showcases his versatility on his instrument (the fiddle) as well as his vocal range and taste. Garrett, who plays fiddle for The Infamous Stringdusters and sings lead on many of their songs, has chosen to assemble a range of fine musicians, fitting his choices together to fit the specifics of each song. Many solo projects rely heavily upon the band mates of the person making the collection. Although Stringdusters musicians play on three cuts of this effort, they do not dominate, allowing Garrett to pull together an eclectic group of musicians chosen to help him reflect and enlarge his interpretation of each song. He has chosen five songs he composed or collaborated on as well as sufficient songs from other sources to demonstrate his diversity. The CD is a Sugar Hill release and can be obtained here.

“I Am a Stranger,” written by Jeremy and his Dad Glen, with whom he’s also collaborated on a gospel album, sets a tone for the CD that tracks Garrett’s relocation from his roots in rural Idaho to his current position with the Infamous Stringdusters and as a valued session musician in his new home, Nashville.
I am a stranger in a land far away from my home,
And I am a pilgrim, and I’m bound to travel on,
Carelessly I’ve wandered down a long and winding pathway all alone,

And you’ll see me in the evening, but come morning I’ll be gone
Julie Elkins, also a westerner now living near Raleigh, NC, contributes a restrained a thoughtful banjo to complement Garrett’s fiddle work and Jake Stargel’s very good guitar work. The song emphasizes the search for meaning in life. The image of forsaking the “straight and true” path of the farm for a life of looking for fulfillment is supported by the tone of Garrett’s singing as well as the instrumental.

“Echoes of Goodbye” is a hard driving bluegrass song in Monroe style written by Garrett. Jamie Dailey and Josh Williams contribute effective vocal harmonies for this effective song. Jake Stargel, who tours on guitar with The Greencards, while still a teenager, continues to develop as a very fine flat picking guitarist. His work on this album is the first time I remember hearing him doing session work, and his contributions are significant. The song shows that Garrett is at home in the most traditional of bluegrass forms as well as the much more progressive work for which he is well known.
So I’ll climb up to the mountains,
And I’ll shout her name on high,
Tryin’ not to imagine living life alone,
While hearin’ echoes of goodbye.
Garrett’s supple voice manages to capture the loneliness and the echo with a catch in his voice that grabs a listener. Shawn Lane, of Blue Highway, chimes in with a superb mandolin solo coming in under Stargel’s break and hitting it just right.

“What’s Good for You” is a cover of a Flatt & Scruggs song with Abigail Washburn (Uncle Earl, The Sparrow Quartet) singing harmony. It’s a good old “if you can cheat, so can I” song with a lilting melody and drive added by Ned Luberecki on the banjo. Andy Hall plays Dobro on this one. Mike Bub on bass and Mike Compton on mandolin provide the traditional sounds. Compton, acknowledged as perhaps the best contemporary Monroe style mandolin player, strikes just the right tone. Combined with the new “Echoes of Goodbye,” the two prove that traditional bluegrass belongs in a project showcasing a range of ideas of what bluegrass can sound like.

In his liner notes, Jeremy writes about playing “Give it Up” by his father Glen and Craig Market as bluegrass ballad with just the right amount of drive added by Julie Elkins restrained rolling on the banjo. The song is further enriched by Kim Fox’s tasteful harmony vocal.
When you’re lost inside yourself,
There’s no need for someone else,
We all need a little help,
So give it up.
The song encourages people encountering difficulties in their lives to stop thinking they’re the only ones encountering problems and to look around. Garrett’s fiddle takes on a mellow and melodic sound in this piece, which suits it perfectly. Similarly, he adopts a warmer tone in his voice. The theme of needing a little help moves towards the gospel songs found in his earlier CD recorded with his Dad.

“Y2K” is an instrumental in which Jeremy is joined by his band mates in The Infamous Stringdusters. The name recalls the anxiety attendant to the concern surrounding whether computers would shut down as the twentieth century came to an end. The song has a tense and urgent sound supporting this concern. It’s a fast, but never soothing trip.

Country singer Hank Thompson’s song “Today,” first recorded in 1956 makes a sharp turn away from the distinctly progressive sounds of Y2K. Instrumentally, it features Tommy Giampietro on percussion (read drums), Paul Franklin on pedal steel, and Jeff Taylor on Piano. Mike Bub on bass and Chris Sharp on violin fill in the band. Garrett does not accompany his vocal with any fiddle play. The song has an old time country sound hearkening back, perhaps to the western swing of the 1940’s, and held a special meaning to Jeremy’s grandfather.

Played on a retuned fiddle and sung without overdubbing, “The Fields of My Mind” marks another sharp turn in this album that keeps on surprising with its diversity. Just unaccompanied fiddle and voice, the song evokes the sense of loneliness one can feel in the isolated mountains of Garrets native Idaho where the song was written by his father’s friend Joe Smith. The keening sound of the fiddle supports the empty feeling of the lyric. Don’t listen to this song of lost love on a cold, cloudy day.
Jesse Cobb & Jeremy

“End of the Line” by John Pennell and Jeff White supplies the requisite train song and gives the Infamous Stringdusters and opportunity to combine with Garrett on a new song with an older feel. Travis Book and Andy Hall supply harmony vocals.
End of the line, end of the road,
End of the life spinning out of control,
I ran with the Devil and almost lost it all,
One free hand is all I’ve got,
For you to save from these rocks,
At the end of the line, I’m trying not to fall.
The interplay between Jeremy’s fiddle and Chris Pandolfi on the banjo near the end of the song weaves a pattern of loss and possibility. When you reach the end of the line, sometimes there’s only one person who can make enough difference to bring life back under control. The ability of the Stringdusters to capture raw feeling in music is nearly unparalleled.

Jeremy with Infamous Stringdusters at Merlefest 2008
As Garret says in the liner notes “I Knew You Would Love Me” is a love song in an upbeat tone. The tune is one Jeremy carried around for a while until John Pennell helped him find words for it. Julie Elkins’ insistent roll provides the drive for this very pleasant song.
The first time I saw you, I trembled and felt my heart leap,
I wanted to tell you, but my tongue it was tied to my feet,
Though I stepped and I stumbled I was sure it would take me a while,
I knew I would kiss you, I knew by the way that you smiled.
The song puts a smile on your face as it move along. Garrett demonstrates his varied fiddle technique with lightness of fingers and bowing to complement the lyrics and tune. Shawn Lane, too, rips through a subtle and light mandolin break. Jake Stargel, whose progressive guitar breaks with The Greencards are strong and pronounced, holds back and shows his versatility on this one, too.

“Peace King” brings the Infamous Stringdusters crew together in a gentle, contemplative instrumental that doesn’t focus on a single instrument. Rather the soulful tune passes quietly back and forth through the piece. The search for peace, internal and in a broader sense, radiates through this lovely little song.

The CD concludes with U2’s “North and South of the River” with Andy Falco on the guitar, Jeff Taylor on piano, and Erich Jaskowiak on percussion. It’s a gentle, caring song that examines the separation between two people symbolized by their being separated by the river (of life?). This thoughtful and plaintive song leaves a nostalgic sense to end this very good solo album.

Garrett had long wanted to produce a solo album that captured his range and interests, including, but not limited to, musical ideas he shares with his band mates in The Infamous Stringdusters. He points out that the quality of musicians he included in the project allowed him to sketch out musical ideas and themes and then develop completed tracks in a collaborative fashion. Julie Elkins, who plays banjo on four tracks, says, “The exceptional thing about working with Jeremy, though, was that he gave all of us free reign to impart ideas and allowed for the spontaneity that gives this record such a tangible energy. It was truly a group effort in the way that we all discussed the possibilities and threw our cards on the table. We worked through the songs as a unit, did several takes of each song (live) and the result is what you hear on the CD.” Musicians for this project were carefully chosen and then given lots of latitude as each cut was developed. Instrumentation reflects Jeremy’s conception of each song. The project comes together as a very satisfying effort, showing his range and capacity as a vocalist and fiddler. The CD is available from Sugar Hill Records, on line as a download, or directly from Jeremy Garrett when you see him with the Stringdusters at festivals and concerts.