In the new edition of the always interesting Yeti magazine, there’s a good and provocative piece about Jack Rose and the Black Twig Pickers, in which the author Justin Farrar calls out “All the shaggy indie hippies and underground freakers out there dabbling in Appalachian folk, country music and roots rock.”
Rose, who Farrar honourably exempts from his rant, joins in, too. “We’re not dabbling with folk forms trying to make them contemporary or psychedelic,” he says. “We can actually play our instruments without the ‘free folk’ label, which I think lots of other musicians use to cover up their lack of musical skill. Plus, we swing like a motherfucker.”
Well, speaking as an expert on “shaggy indie hippies and underground freakers”, and as a bit of a dabbler in “proper” American folk, I’m probably not altogether qualified to comment on the new “Jack Rose And The Blag Twig Pickers” album. But I can say unequivocally, Rose is right: they swing like motherfuckers.
Rose you’ve probably come across before, as the doyen of the new school of American Primitive guitarists. The Black Twig Pickers are a pugnacious old-time collective from Richmond, Virginia, centred around a banjo player and fiddler called Mike Gangloff, who used to play with Rose in the wonderfully ominous freestyle explorers Pelt (I remember reviewing 2001’s “Ayahuasca” for The Wire, and being amazed and a bit out of my depth).
“Jack Rose And The Blag Twig Pickers” actually revamps one “Ayahuasca” tune, “Bright Sunny South”, but the prevailing vibes here are very different. As Farrar describes in his Yeti piece, the group are fundamentally committed to making good-time old-time dance music. There’s none of the mysticism so often deployed by notionally ‘free folk’: essentially, Gangloff and Rose are intent on revisiting the Old Weird America, but not bothering too much about the weird bit.
As far as I can see, that quest for ‘weirdness’, however self-conscious, is what often makes contemporary folk music achieve a sort of transcendence – though of course I suppose I’m approaching it from an indie-rock perspective, at heart. The pursuit of authenticity, or at the very least a kind of traditional orthodoxy, can sometimes, to my mind, end up as rather hokey; rough-hewn Appalachian kitsch, if you like.
Parts of “Jack Rose And The Blag Twig Pickers” skirt a little close to that, not least when Gangloff lets rip with his parched holler. But the unshowy richness and vigour of their playing, and the evident joy which underpins it, make these 11 tracks transcendent in their own easy-going way. Much here is wonderful, from the unself-conscious flow of “Sail Away Ladies” into “I Shall Not Be Moved” onwards.
By “Soft Steel Piston” they’re flying, Gangloff’s fervently sawed fiddle and Rose’s spirited picking sitting tight but comfortable over the locomotive clack of Nate Bowles’ washboard. “Kensington Blues”, an old Rose solo tune that resembled a sweet John Fahey piece in its original guise, is brilliantly fleshed out, its original concentrated solipsism socialised and transformed. And “Revolt” has a depth, intensity and virtuosity which borders on the cosmic, without ever betraying its resolutely earthy principles.