Friday, June 24, 2011

The Quiet Man

The first time we laid eyes on Josh Oliver was New Year’s Eve, 2006. The Everybodyfields were about to open for the Avett Brother’s at the Neighborhood Theater in Charlotte. We saw him standing beside the band’s van behind the venue and mistook him for one of the Avetts. He was traveling with the ‘fields. The next time we saw him was at a ‘fields gig at the Map Room in West Ashley, Charleston, SC in February of ’07. We realized then that he was a roadie, sound guy and merch man for the band. We didn’t realize that he was also a musician, quietly working his way into the group.

By the time the Everybodyfields released their acclaimed CD Nothing is Okay Oliver was a full-fledged side man, playing keyboards and electric guitar, and offering occasional background vocals. When the band stopped by our house that summer for lunch we got to know him as the “quiet man,” unassuming, but warm. He demonstrated some licks on the piano to our oldest son.

Not long thereafter the ‘fields disintegrated, the lead songwriting duo of Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews going their separate ways. Josh hung around, playing with both artists in their respective solo acts. We saw him again at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, playing and singing scintillating harmonies in support of Sam’s new album, The Fake that Sunk a Thousand Ships. He took that same lonesome voice, raised at the foot of Chilhowee Mountain in Maryville, TN, and complimented Jill Andrews in her slick new band.

What we didn’t know was that Josh was quietly working on an album of his own. But here it is, entitled Troubles, released on the first day of summer, 2011. The set consists mainly of Oliver, his guitar and occasional piano, with some intermittent help from Brandon Story (upright bass), Megan Gregory (fiddle, bgv’s) and Sam Quinn (bgv’s).

Troubles is a collection of covers old and recent as well as a few originals. The vocal arrangements on “I Will Never Marry” are breath-taking and heartrending, while the cavernous guitar and organ effects on the original “Lonesome Heartbroken Blues” are chilling. We can summarize Oliver’s accomplishment by focusing on two tracks, “Red Rocking Chair” and “Pass Me Not.”

The former – alternately titled “Sugar Babe” (or “Sugar Baby”) – was originally a banjo “rounder” common to the upper South. The first known recording of it was made by Virginia banjoist Dock Boggs in 1926. Two versions of the song appear on the Hammons family recording from the ‘70s. Given that the Hammons’s played mostly 19th century tunes, it is likely that “Sugar Baby/Red Rocking Chair” dates from that time (later versions were made by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco). Oliver’s rendering shares little in common with the others apart from the lyrics. Here, the guitar alternates between sparseness in the verses and restive, jazz-like inflection in the gaps; and Oliver’s tortured, reverberated vocals ring over what feels like an abandoned hollow. Unlike Boggs’ biting work-out, this one is a regret-laden dirge.

Similarly, Oliver takes the familiar hymn “Pass Me Not” and, with the assistance of Sam Quinn on harmonies, turns it into as sorrowful a number as Hank Williams could have mustered. It’s high and lonesome and southern Appalachian, to be sure; but one can almost picture a blind Bartimaeus crying out to the passing Savior, as well.

These tracks show us that Josh Oliver is both a conservator and faithful interpreter of tradition. He is mining the rich seams of American folk and spiritual music, making the nuggets his own and informing his originals. It’s the emergent signature style and the discovery of one’s voice, based on deep reflection and experience, which makes this a satisfying debut to own.

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