Mike and Tari Conroy
Gathering Flowers from the Hillside (Conroy Digital Sound)
With the regularity of perennial wildflowers, Mike and Tari Conroy, of Conner, Mont., have offered up an unpretentious collection of songs each year since the release of their first CD, Oldtime Bluegrass Duet, in 1997. If there is a connecting thread to their collections, it seems that each annual offering celebrates particular artists or areas of the oldtime and bluegrass canons. Oldtime Bluegrass Duet presents quite a few songs written or made famous by Bill Monroe. A Beautiful Picture is a collection of oldtime gospel, containing many traditional songs. Up on the Mountain features many of the Conroy’s own original mountain ballads in the oldtime tradition. Their most recent collection, Gathering Flowers from the Hillside, quietly revels in the music of A.P. Carter and many of the songs presented in the Carter Family repertoire.
With six recordings under their belts, Mike and Tari Conroy play with a delicate, understated finesse that recalls the well-grounded, oldtime duet tradition. Mike Conroy plays a hearty mandolin with delicate turnarounds and filigree that occasionally, though cautiously, tip their hat to jazz. No flashy innovations here, but rather a somewhat conservative hearkening-back to a traditional style of playing that is rapidly losing ground to “dawg”-style fusions of jazz and popular music with oldtime and bluegrass melodies. Would I recommend this music to people who listen to Bela Fleck, David Grisman or even, God forbid, Uncle Tupelo? Certainly. This is where all that flashy stuff begins. Roots mon, roots.
I would especially recommend these recordings to those who want to learn to play these songs. The versions in the Conroy catalog are excellent for learning the chord patterns, bass runs and just for playing along. Their singing faithfully emulates some of the best oldtime duets ever published.
Gathering Flowers from the Hillside, while not the best of the Conroy’s recordings, compares favorably with the rest of their catalog. The songs are all aptly rendered, with a refreshing gentleness. Tari Conroy’s rhythm guitar is lighthearted with a sturdy confidence. Mike Conroy’s mandolin exudes the scent of freshly chopped firewood on a mild spring day. Yet there is a certain passion missing from Gathering Flowers that is apparent on their earlier recordings. It is possible my ears are jaded by awe at the original Carter Family versions of these songs. This collection is comprised of some of the most poignant, melancholy ballads in American folk music (“Down in the Willow Garden,” “Bury Me Beneath the Willow Tree”). It is a wonder how the Carter Family infused these songs with mournfulness and joy in the same decoction. I salute their desire to record them.
Without Boundaries (Tapas Records)
Andre Floyd’s most recent release, Without Boundaries, is a strange recording. It seems to pull in two different directions, and I can’t tell if Floyd is being serious or satirical. I keep hearing Frank Zappa’s great longtime vocalist Ike Willis singing with perfect sincerity about howlingly ridiculous things. This recording reminds me of Joe’s Garage with a vengeance. I keep thinking I finally found the album that Joe would have recorded. (To catch you up on the logic here, Joe’s Garage is a truly warped rock opera about an L.A. garage band and its rise to semi-fame on the bus-band circuit.)
On the one hand, there are songs here of the most swaggeringly pretentious brand. “Goosebump Girl” and “Hold Me” are bizarre, self-consciously hip, hound dog blues. A look at the lyrics should suffice to demonstrate what I mean: “Satin dress—hand tossed shawl/goosebump lover—makes a grown man crawl.” And then there’s the popular “Listen to me mama/ Honey can’t you see/A little crumb from your biscuit baby/Is fine with me.” The lyrics don’t do much for me. But hey, if it gets Joe and the rest of the band laid I guess the music is doing its job. Isn’t that what live performance is all about?
Seriously, there seems to be more to this recording than what’s on the surface. Much of it works well as satire. On the other hand, there are some very fine songs here. “The Man You Know Very Well” has a beautifully understated tango rhythm and a sweet crooning melody à la Sam Cooke. The lyrics are sometimes cloyingly superficial, with honey-dripping sincerity. But that’s when I hear Ike Willis singing the vocals again, and he’s chuckling to himself, wondering if I’m going to smile and relax. “Movin’ Louisiana” has a strong dose of tongue-in-cheek, Zappaesque character development in it, as well as a touch of Rickie Lee Jones’ street corner dialogue. “Color Me There” is a light-hearted ditty à la Randy Newman.
And, lest I forget to mention it, the music is exceptionally good. Pink Floyd meets the blues cowboy for lunch in New Orleans. Floyd has pulled together some extraordinarily diverse talents in this band. The musical styles range from grinding blues to sweet soul, jaunty ragtime, rockin’ Cajun, easy listening and sentimental cowboy music. David Griffith, who plays electric guitar, mandolin, tenor saxophone, piano, flute, lap steel, and organ seems to have a whirling momentum, like a planet with his own gravity. Well, words only go so far—you’ll have to listen to it for yourself. But if this record starts to get on your nerves, remember: It’s all about fun. Relax.