LIKE YOUR MUSIC unplugged and untainted by fickle fashion? Here's a look at some acoustic music from area artists more concerned with tradition than trends.
STEPPIN' OUT -- "The Moon is Rising" (Jennifer J102). This duo, which performs at Gallagher's this Friday and Saturday, is best known for its work with the progressive bluegrass band Stars and Bars. Old fans won't be disappointed by Robin Ruddy's plaintive soprano or John Akin's rather percussive approach to the mandolin on this recording, and the same goes for the generally crisp and tasteful arrangements. Working outside the confines of bluegrass does have its advantages, though; Ruddy and Akin frequently change the mood and pacing, and contribute a number of their own fine songs.
STEVE HANCOFF -- "Steel String Guitar" (Independently produced cassette). A finger-style guitarist, Hancoff displays exceptional technique and arrangements and a delightfully eclectic repertoire on this debut release. If Guy Van Duser's stirring arrangement of "Star and Stripes Forever" is hard to beat as a flag-waver, Hancoff's transpositions of piano works by Scott Joplin, J.P. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton, among others, are almost as effective, brimming with vitality and grace.
CLAM CHOWDER -- "Special Order" (Independently produced cassette). It's easy to acquire a taste for Clam Chowder, which has a seemingly insatiable appetite for quirky songs and robust harmonies. While the ingredients in "Special Order" aren't always as unsettling as "Somebodies Moggie" (Eric Bogle's graphic lament of a cat's encounter with a truck), or as rib-tickling as Shel Silverstein's "Beans Taste Fine," or as clever and evocative as "Moscow Nights," they're seldom if ever bland.
CATHY FINK -- "The Leading Role" (Rounder 0223). With lots of help from her friends, Fink has come up with a real winner here. By far, this is the singer and banjoist's most satisfying and consistent album yet, and not just because she's in fine voice and surrounded by some of the areas's finest musicians, including Mike Auldridge and Pete Kennedy. It's really the songs, most of them gleaned from 60 years of recordings by women country and folk singers, that win you over. We can thank such gifted storytellers as Ola Belle Reed, Alice Gerrard, Si Kahn and Hazel Dickens for that.
THE JOHNSON MOUNTAIN BOYS -- "We'll Still Sing On" (Rounder 0205). So what's new? When a bluegrass group performs and records as frequently as the Mountain Boys, a gospel album is as inevitable as a broken string or a lost pick. Even so, few bands boast a better tenor singer than Dudley Connell and it doesn't hurt that he's also capable of writing a song as good as "Seek Not the Ways," which sounds just fine sitting alongside the tunes of older craftsmen, like Mac Wiseman's "I'm a Stranger" and Don Reno's "When I Safely Reach the Other Shore." As always, the band's high harmonies are airtight.