WHEN "BANJO DANCING'S" Stephen Wade isn't performing, he's managed to steal away enough time to produce a couple of albums by musicians he's admired. Banjo pickers, naturally. Here's a brief look at Wade's labors of love and some recent recordings of kindred spirits.
TONY ELLIS --
"Dixie Banner" (Flying Fish FF444). Just when you think no one is writing tunes with a traditional spirit and grace anymore, along comes Ellis with a slew of them. His banjo playing is its own reward -- chiming, melodic and assured, utterly romantic when the mood strikes him, as it often does -- and his fiddle can fire the soul. Wade appears on the album briefly, but his major contribution is providing Ellis with an inspired and uncluttered setting, much of it richly evocative of the old South. Indeed, recruiting Jac Herrick and Mike Craver (of Red Clay Ramblers fame) was a stroke of genius. Both Herrick and Craver prove wonderfully adept at nurturing the 19th-century charm that distinguishes so many of Ellis' compositions, as they draw on a colorful and surprisingly subtle combination of pump organ, tuba, trombone, cello, piano and other instruments.
W. FLEMING BROWN --
"Little Rosewood Casket and Other Songs of Joy" (Merrywang 1953). The late Brown, who taught at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, was one of Wade's greatest inspirations, and little wonder. This live recording of traditional tunes, also produced by Wade, is relaxed and unadorned and readily captures Brown's robust soulfulness, both as a singer and a banjoist. Certainly, his affinity for mountain music and Carter Family classics was unmistakable -- for proof, just give a listen to the album's title tune or "Unreconstructed Rebel." Yet Brown's voice, a well-worn but still rugged baritone, was well suited to delivering simple, weary refrains like "Fishin' Blues" and "Chilly Winds." He sings everything here honestly, expressively, with his banjo either crackling behind him or gently tracing out the melody.
BILL ELLIS --
"Righteous Blues" (Marimac Recordings 8003). Had this cassette been released on a larger label, it probably would have received a lot more attention by now. It's hard to believe that guitarist Ellis, the son of banjoist Tony Ellis, hasn't devoted most of his playing life to learning these religious blues numbers, culled from the recordings of Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Pink Anderson, Henry Thomas and others. Truth is, Ellis was drawn to this music only a few years ago. Nevertheless, he's mastered these tunes instrumentally, no mean feat, and often sings them with the passion and urgency that they demand. (By mail: P.O. Box 5, Little Ferry, NJ 07643).
VARIOUS ARTISTS --
"Rounder Banjo" (Rounder CD 11542). File this CD under "Banjos Are Us." An hour-plus anthology compiled by Tony Trischka from the Rounder catalogue, it's weighted in favor of contempory and progressive three-finger banjo arrangements. Still, there's something here for just about everyone, including a couple of enjoyable vocal numbers. Highlights include performances by Snuffy Jenkins ("House of David Blues"), Bill Keith ("Clinging Vine"), Lamar Grier ("Banjo Picking Girl") and Bela Fleck ("Perplexed").
BILL EMERSON --
"Home of the Red Fox" (Rebel 1651). The company Emerson keeps on this record tells the tale as well as anything else: guitarist Tony Rice, mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, bassist Mark Schatz, dobroist Jerry Douglas and violinist Jim Buchanan. While Emerson's crisp, rolling banjo patterns provide the initial momentum for his own spirited tunes, including "Old Times in Virginia" and "Appalachiana," the entire album is a collaborative effort, with each of the players getting a chance to stretch out. Not surprisingly, bluegrass nimble, quick and tasteful is the result.