The Ragpicker String Band is the new and fruitful collaboration of mandolinist Rich DelGrosso, guitarist Mary Flower, and multi-instrumentalist Martin Grosswendt. The trio’s new self-titled collection of old-school folk-blues takes you back to a time before most of us were born.
These veterans of the folk, bluegrass and blues circuits give us a sprinkling of recent and original songs among the classics. The latter include not one or two but three songs by Sleepy John Estes, who inspires the three to some of their deepest and most soulful performances.
The rich vocal harmonies of “Honey Babe” lead off the album in pleasantly groggy style. After that the real blues begins, with Flower taking the lead on “Minor Blues.” The dominant bluesy flavor as the album rolls on is of a few friends sitting down together to play for their own pleasure. The opposite of slick, it’s an acoustic concoction of Delta blues and Appalachian string band with a touch of jazz. (I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a slide guitar solo on “Blue Monk” before.)
It’s hard for me to pick favorite tracks. The album is a labor of love – love for the traditional songs and sounds and sentiments and grumbles that have inspired these fine musicians and informed their work. It feels devotional throughout, even though the selections are almost all secular.
An exception is the traditional gospel tune “Trimmed and Burning,” distinguished here by the trio’s throaty vocal harmonies. Absent a soprano voice, these vocal ensemble sections have a distinctive depth. “This old world is almost done,” goes the mutedly hopeful refrain. But when the album is done, I wouldn’t mind hearing more.
Right now I like Estes’s good-natured “Clean Up at Home,” the dark “Motel Towel” with its somber harmonies, and the starkly simple Flower original “Baby Where You Been.” But on each listen I seem to light on different favorites.
The only mishit is “Google Blues,” an attempt to cleverly graft a funny internet-era story onto traditional acoustic-blues roots, which ends up sounding culturally tone-deaf. Cuteness isn’t the strength, or the point, of this collaboration, a loving tribute to the great traditions of country blues.
The Ragpicker String Band comes out August 14 on Yellow Dog Records. Pre-order at the link below.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00YAY4QHA]