Ralph E White was a member of well-loved punk bluegrass outfit Bad Livers but his solo work is possessed of a much more lonesome spark, exaggerating the implied drone at the heart of the music of Dock Boggs and The Stanley Brothers. "Navasota River Devil Squirrel" was originally released as a CD-R in 2007, but this limited vinyl version comes courtesy of fellow musical loner Joshua Burkett's new imprint. White plays wooden six-string banjo, violin, accordion and kalimba and his voice has a high, eerie quality to it that allows it to blend with the various primitive strategies that the music employs to reanimate traditional and original material alike. The use of kalimba situates aspects of the sound in some avant hillbilly fourth world, while the combination of dense matrices of string and White's transporting vocal is extremely psychedelic.
Ralph White -- Navasota River Devil Squirrel
(Spirit of Orr/Mystra Records)
Most modern avant-folkies do more or less the same thing. They paste together a little free improv, some finger-picking, and an exotic instrument or two and dip them in a vat of reverb. The end result is spacey and cool on a superficial level; kind of rootsy and more often then not sloppy, formless and utterly rudimentary. I suppose you could call them “sub-tradition” in the sense that they tinker with elements from old folk styles they can’t actually play. Ralph White, in contrast, is "supra-tradition." Navasota River Devil Squirrel is the work of a banjo player who has fully internalized old time and bluegrass and who is now reshaping them into a brand new, highly individualized form. This album is avant garde, yes, but it's not loose or amorphous because of ignorance. In fact, it's hyper-stylized. White's picking trickles oh so naturally, just like a stream. His falsetto whisper delicately curls every word into a spring blossom. This guy isn't naive; he's a master. Navasota River Devil Squirrel would’ve cracked my top five with ease had the thing not arrived in December. It has spent more time on my turntable this month than just about anything else in the new release stacks.
From banjo and fiddle to kalimba and mbira, Ralph White is a master of ethnomusicology, and it's all self-taught. The 56-year-old troubadour served as fiddleman in Austin punk-grass legends the Bad Livers. He toured with the Butthole Surfers, played with the Gulf Coast Playboys, traveled to Africa and Australia, and finally settled here at home. Off the road is just his style. Since 1999, White has played solo, and it's indescribable. The blues mentality mixed with Outback echoes and safari serenades echoes off 2006 release Navasota River Devil Squirrel. His solo shows, as well as those he plays with new Austinite Amy Annelle, are stocked with hipsters, old-timers, music professionals, and doe-eyed fans. He matches old-school with new-school, kids with elders, and the line doesn't cross down the middle. Close your eyes, and listen to a million decades coalesce into one eerie, beautiful one-man band, with one foot on a chuck of wood and hands full of sound. There's nobody in the world like Ralph White.
At first, as a banjo plunks out the first few bars of Ralph White's "Look Down That Road," it sounds like the beginning of a folk song from Eastern Appalachia. However, what follows, while grounded in centuries-old musicology, is anything but traditional. It is like listening to some ancient rural avant-garde music. Mr. White has made a career of tweaking music, moving it beyond what is expected from a genre or style.
As a member of the Bad Livers, the Austin, Texas, band whose music drew on Cajun, Mexican, bluegrass and punk traditions and currently as a solo musician who has played with the likes of Michael Hurley and Michelle Shocked, Mr. White's sound has been called trash-grass, punk-grass, and noise. Regardless of what term is used to describe what he does, it inevitably fails to define what is heard.
"I compose music, improvise music, and steal music," Mr. White explains, "but I really think that the more the lines between these categories are blurred, the more interesting it becomes. So I guess I'm a blurrer."
This Saturday, Feb. 28, Mr. White brings his considerable talents and penchant for the unconventional to Che's Lounge in Vineyard Haven as part of a New England tour that stops, among other places, in Boston and Amherst. The Island show will mark Mr. White's first visit to Martha's Vineyard. The show will open with the Martha's Vineyard band, Chorus of Arrows.
Chris Liberato, who runs the Martha's Vineyard record label and promotion company A Whale of a Label, first heard Mr. White's impressive third album, "Navasota River Devil Squirrel," last spring, and it became one of his favorite records. He decided he needed to bring the multi-instrumentalist to an Island audience.
Mr. Liberato explains, "I liked the Bad Livers just fine, but Ralph White's music is a whole different thing entirely. It's more folksy and rootsy and somewhat psychedelic."
Mr. White's down-home sound attracts many fans. His high, twangy drawl is perfect, crying out woes-of-the-world bluegrass lyrics. But his instinct to explore, to expand this musical tradition beyond what is expected, sets Mr. White apart.
On his solo records, Mr. White plays violin, six-string banjo, button accordion, and the eerie kalimba, an instrument with African origins that lends many songs an other-worldly quality that escape categorization.
His ability to fuse musical styles as diverse as Jamaican roots music, Colombian Cumbia, and Australian surf-punk to a bluegrass heart, which dizzies the ear with new-found sound and has reviewers groping for hyphenated descriptions, separates Mr. White's songs from any else. You can't simply hear the songs he creates; you have to engage with them, actively listen and allow your preconceptions to go away.
At the end of "Look Down That Road," Mr. White asks, "Don't the road look dark and gloomy?" and the depression era landscape of dust, drought, and broken souls - images brought to mind by the banjo and violin progressions at the heart of the song - are expanded to encompass a larger, contemporary world transformed by globalization. Our access to various cultures and traditions offers new frontiers for creative synthesis, and Mr. White combines these in a way that makes them accessible.
His music is artful. It may not always be easy or pleasing to the ear, but his talent is evident. If one is willing to listen, Mr. White will explore and expand the boundaries of definable, categorized music.
"The only thing to do really," Mr. White says, "is to just find your own voice, and I'm on that path..."
Ralph White, Saturday, Feb. 28, 7:30 pm, Che's Lounge, Vineyard Haven. Opening acts by Chorus of Arrows, Constant Sickness. $8. BYOB. 508-627-0307.
Ralph White was weird folk when weird folk wasn't cool. He spent seven years with the Bad Livers playing a punky, twisted take on bluegrass. Known as a fiddler with serious traditional chops, these days, he'll bust out Syd Barrett covers and folk tunes on the kalimba, an African thumb piano, or "Down By the River" on accordion. His strangely underrated solo albums "Trash Fish" and "Down By the Waterline" are mutant solo Americana of a bright and gleaming strain, the kind that comes from nearly 30 years of musical exploration.
White says he's had trouble fitting into any scene — a little too weird for the traditional crowd, too song-oriented for the free improvisors. "My banjo style has nothing to do with bluegrass, and the traditional Irish music groups I've played with aren't too into the banjo/kalimba stuff."
"I stopped listening to music because playing it is all I want to do, really," White says. "You can try to be faithful to traditional styles, but if you're dedicated to music, you pretty much have to find your own voice."
Year of the Squirrel
Ralph White's old, weird Americana
On a dreary Wednesday night in October, patrons walk into the Parlor on North Loop for pizza, a Lone Star or two, and then continue on their way. A dazed man with a backpack wanders in, then out, then in again, clutching a copy of the local Fugitive Post.
Next to the entrance, Ralph White sits oblivious, eyes closed, his hat tossed down in front of him as a tip jar. There's a song about murder. The next one's about death. This one's about conspiracies. There are Syd Barrett covers, "Terrapin" and "Long Gone," taken down from hallucinatory heights on the banjo to be baptized in the Delta. Later, he sings of "sycamore leaves and mustang vine," and it rolls off his tongue so languidly it's almost obscene.
This is the fight or flight experience of a performance by Ralph White, a fugitive from old, weird America. He certainly channels the past, but his path of least resistance has been well-traveled by the ghosts of his craft: Bill Monroe, Dock Boggs, Charlie Bowman. He fiddles with traditional Cajun band the Gulf Coast Playboys. He did time with Austin's premier bluegrass punks the Bad Livers. He played fiddle and accordion in traditional French/Cajun group Bourée Texane. He cites religion upon witnessing a Lightnin' Hopkins show as a child but just as hungrily devours African ostinatos and traditional mountain songs. Years ago, an ethnomusicologist friend turned him on to tapes of African music featuring mbira and kalimba, two instruments White now plays live.
"I wanted to play something original like that stuff but didn't want to become what I called an '-oid' – someone who plays one type of music and gets it down really good," White explains in a pleasant Texas twang. "For some reason the music I play is kind of crooked, as far as playing guitar chords. I'm not very taught as a musician, and at first I was kind of embarrassed of it being like that, but now I don't try to stop it from happening. I like the idea of learning something wrong and letting it evolve into something different. A lot of my music is just me playing a melody I couldn't figure out."
White often has a difficult time putting his music into words, and perhaps it's always been that way. The Bad Livers' Monday night Saxon Pub residency became legendary, whether for their covers (notably Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life") or manic energy, but their sound was still as hard to pin down as a buttered-up hog. His time as a Liver turned White on to a lot of punk stuff, as did members of the Butthole Surfers, who took notice of the band – banjo player Danny Barnes and stand-up bassist Mark Rubin being the other two-thirds of the trio – and took them on tour in 1991. Their Paul Leary-produced Delusions of Banjer CD was released in 1992 on Touch and Go, and their first cassette, a collection of gospel songs called Dust on the Bible, was re-released in 1994. Lots of touring ensued, and Hogs on the Highway would be the fiddler's last Livers album. Life on the road, at least in this form, was not his bag.
When White left the Livers in '96, he began toying with a solo career. Since 1999, he's amassed an impressive collection of traditional instruments and has been "obsessively" playing banjo and kalimba, a small, thumb-plucked instrument. Live, he lays down a mixture of traditional bluegrass, Irish, African, Scottish, and original tunes. And there's always the occasional Syd Barrett cover. In the process of gigging, White has gathered local fans from Honky and Rubble to Weird Weeds, Peter & the Wolf, and Shawn David McMillen, bridging the gap between traditional and experimental, infusing old with new. Of course, he's probably destined to be overlooked in his day and rediscovered by some bearded, eccentric musician or record junkie 20 years from now. White, however, is less analytical about it: "I'm kind of between an old guy and a young guy."
He's the human embodiment of that "I'd Rather Be Fishing" bumper sticker. He's got dirt under his nails and a gracious smile. The lines and creases of his face belong to a man over 50, but the dart of his eye betrays youth. The tattoos on his forearm – a blue heron on his shoulder and a gar (the fish on the cover of his 2002 triumph, Trash Fish) – signal something more at work here.
Growing up on the outskirts of Austin in West Lake Hills, he witnessed the creation of MoPac and the overdevelopment of his neighborhood. To hear him tell it, Barton Springs once ran wild with catfish. His father, Ralph White Jr., was an esteemed UT art professor who passed away in 2004. Like many musically inclined youths growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, White didn't care much for high school, really liked Pink Floyd, and dropped lots of acid.
While he has an obvious affinity for the blues, folk, and bluegrass, he doesn't use traditional banjo tunings. His tunings are lower, and as a result, sound haunted. "African slaves living in Arkansas, mixing with Indians – whatever kind of music that was, I would want to explore it," he explains.
In southeastern Hill County, Texas, just northeast of Mount Calm, is the Navasota River. His new LP, Navasota River Devil Squirrel, is another exploration in cross-cultural pollination. Recorded "in a frenzy during a heat wave," Squirrel traverses death (a cover of "Oh, Death" by Dock Boggs), nature, summer, and three separate songs about that titular rodent, which may actually exist.
"Up until I was a teenager, I used to hunt squirrels," White relates. "When I was in the Bad Livers, Danny Barnes and I decided to revive our childhood. So we went down to the Navasota River with my freshly acquired gun. I saw this squirrel and took a shot at him, and he, like, attacked me. Well, he was really trying to get from one tree to another."
That sort of describes White's outlook. His level of success might not be measurable in sales or show attendance, but the distilled tradition of his music has a generational life span. His 2002 album, Trash Fish, was a local gem, achingly bittersweet and dusty, burdened with not being able to "feel at home in this world anymore." Perhaps like his nemesis the squirrel, White feels most comfortable among the mustang vine and sycamore leaves. He seems to have a song about every kind of blues: Natives coming back from the dead and lamenting oil refineries on their land? Yes. A song about rain falling on his easy chair? Check. Of course, there's some dirty dealing, too. On "Wild Hog in These Woods," White's yelp reveals that hog, well, he don't "run or jump so good." He chases that damn hog into his den, and what does he find? "The bones of 13 men." "Crooked blues," sure, but there's also something pure and absolute.
"Ralph embodies everything I love about music and none of the characteristics valued by the commercial music industry," says Weird Weeds drummer Nick Hennies. "He's someone who realizes the music in his head with expertise, sincerity, and dignity, with a complete disregard for current trends."
"There are a lot of narrow-minded, capitalistic ideas controlling [music] in a way," White says. "I can't get too wrapped up in that, though. I heard Jonathan Richman in a radio interview say any sort of success you get in life is like icing on the cake. I love to play out. If I don't have any gigs, I wonder sometimes why I'm doing it."
"Ralph's music is pure Ralph," adds Honky bassist Jeff Pinkus. "We all play with ourselves; he just sounds better doin' it. There's something so humble and honest about the way he sounds."
Like his bluegrass forefathers, the country wild and nature are recurring themes in his songs, as his cover of Bascom Lamar Lunsford's "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" can attest. White thought he was growing up to be a herpetologist, spurred by his fascination with reptiles, but his day job as a self-employed tree trimmer keeps him in touch with his muse. White built the studio behind his modest South Austin home partially from trees that people paid him to cut down. Inside, wooden banjos, myriad kalimbas, a gourd banjo, cello, accordion, bongos, a turtle shell, various percussion instruments, and his dog, Stella, are splayed around the small room, while a bookshelf hovers over a small bed. The walls are dotted with photos, several of which White took during his African bike ride of 1999.
"It was absolutely wonderful," he says. "I was just gonna go to Zimbabwe and throw my bike on a train from Cape Town. Well, you couldn't take your bicycle on the train. On the map, there looked to be all these dirt roads I could take to Namibia. So I started riding, and I didn't want to stop. I spent a lot of time in wilderness areas where there was nobody. By the time I got to Zimbabwe, I almost wanted to go home. I brought this backpacker's banjo with me so I could learn. Mbiras and kalimbas are everywhere, in the markets, so I would just pick one up and play it, and people would be like, 'Holy shit.'"
Back at the Parlor, this time on a not-so-dreary Thursday night, there are a few more warm bodies, including members of local band Rubble. Again, White's eyes are closed, and his foot taps the floor, matching his dexterous dry bone picking. He plays a frightening version of "All Along the Watchtower," then a song about native Indians. A song about murder follows. To hear the banjo and fiddle, those mythical instruments that invited the devil and God in equal amounts, with White's voice low and dense like Appalachian fog, is a "holy shit" moment. Then his eyes snap open, suddenly aware again, and he asks the young man behind the counter a very pointed question.
"As usual I don't have a watch. What time is it?"
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INTERVIEWS CD REVIEWS
Ralph White On Calypso, African Ostinato, & the Dead
Ralph White: One of those incredibly well-kept secrets you expect Austin to harbor.
Listening to Ralph play banjo on the grass at the Church really got me thinking about my generation. Why were Dave and I the only two people sitting there with Ralph when later that night kids would flock to all the local parties to hear untold numbers of mediocre bands play utterly vacuous music for hours and hours without a word of complaint? I think Bob Dylan once nailed it--I'm paraphrasing--, "Kids today have no sense of history in their music."
Every song Ralph played was both a work of art and a lesson about something he's lived through. He could sit and talk forever about why he played each song he did, and we were glad to listen.
Listen to Ralph White on our compilation.
W & A: First off, it was great to sit outside and hear you play & talk about the songs you performed the other day at Church of the Friendly Ghost. There's a lot of history in the songs you played. Can you describe a few you played that day (like the Calypso one, for example) and where they originated?
R.W: I just learn whatever songs either really inspire me or just seem to come my way-that seems to contradict itself, but it's true-the most recent song I've learned is "Ripple" by the Grateful Dead. I've never been a fan of theirs in any big way, but I heard that song and just had to play it. As I think about this, I realize that songs, whether you write them or steal them, are magical vehicles; they can take you places where no car can go. I'm trying to let an attitude develop in me to where every time I play a song it takes me and whoever is listening somewhere magical. It's hard to do that without a plan or a teacher-but back to question:1-the 1 calypso song in my rep was learned from a "sing out" magazine-it fused with an algerian melody i've been playing on banjo -it sort of morfed into the piece on the wood banjo-"money is king" by,i think an artist known as 'the growling tiger'-i saw the words printed out in that zine -they're just too good to pass-another song i played that day, 'if i lose' is an old trad mourtain song-i started playing it years ago when it just got into my head-those old appalachian mt. tunes are african ostinotos in desguise-loops of magical rythmic tonalitys-i played that kind of music(fiddle music) for years before i started writing songs , so that shits an influence-question
You seem to have a real good friendship with the instruments you play. Could you talk a little about the different banjos you like to play? What about accordions, which are your favorites to play? Other instruments?
this is weird-but i learned(and am still learning) that your instrument can teach you by taking up the kalimba-i could talk for hours about 'banjo'-alot of my originol stuff is composed on a frettless 5-string banjo tuned in a low version of standard banjo tuning-i need to special order strings to match this tuning-my favorite accordian is a b-flat 3-row butten
diatonic one.my special affair is with kalimbas and banjos and i have several of each.?
How long have you been writing and playing songs? What got you started?
ive been writing songs for about 12 years -i've been 'writing' fiddle tunes for 25 years or so.?
What prompts you to write a song? Are there any general kinds of experiences that lead to a new song?
this ones too contradictory for me-some of my favorite songs came out of pure misery, and some from
seemingly nowhere-so i can honestly answer that i dont know what promts me to write a song and there may not be such a thing as a general expeirance (maybe theres a song for everything)?
I wanted to break up my question about your influences into periods because there seems to be so much history behind what you do. Who are the earliest songwriters you've been influenced by? Any before 1900?
you know-its music not song that first inspired me to play-i didnt start thinking a whole lot about lyrics until i
started singing-so much singing is inspiring!thats a hard question for me-i like to think about all the songs that i havnt heard-like if there was no recording industry and the music one vally over was totally different(maybe its still like that in ways)?
What early 20th century American songwriters have really hit you? What about non-Americans?
its weird but i cant think of any one particular songwriter that has influenced me from any time period(i hope that this dosnt make me aloof)exept that by the time i started writing songs i was allready too overwhelmed and influenced by music-i wanted music to help ground me. like right now the lyrics to 'ripple 'are devestatingly beautifull-and the greatfull dead suck-i mean they didnt even write their own stuff, had lyricist do it, just like big corporations design commercials-my point being not a judjement of the dead but that music and lyrics, too can have wonderfull runaway magic that just isnt logical.so i guess i'm too obsessed by just playing my own stuff to even buy records these days-i still get totally moved by music all the time tho-hearing people live and radio, wharever-and as i've repeatedly expressed, the song 'ripple' is my currant inspiration-and i heard it in my car late at night being played magicly superbly by jimmy dale gilmore(whom i'm not a huge fan of either) the question of what kind of pre1900 music to me is inspiring would all the great trad. folk music from just abuot anywhere, from what little ive heard is really good music.i like all those old mountain banjo songsters like doc boggs and clarence ashley but i havnt studied their sound or listened to that stuff as i much as i should.?
How does Austin affect your music? Where else have you lived and how has it been different in other places?
austin-i probably have all kinds of twisted feelings about that(this) situation that is austin-austin is a city in country full of citys that i have lived in all of my life-really strange that i feel so little about it-maybe it affects my music by not affecting it-you see i have also travelled most of my life under various circomstances and austins just part of america and my
perception of what that is is in a state of pathos(i read howard zinn) right now i like the alleys in south austin in the late evening. i also make a decent living as a self employed tree trimmer and have been doing that off and on here for 30 years or so and i actually like doing that ( this contributes to the 'issue' because i like playing music more)?
What's on the horizon? Collaborations, recordings, tours, etc.
ahh the horizon-its vast-i really feel lucky to have these hybrid banjos and kalimbas they seem to make more sense than guitars and keybords they blow my mind and i'm just now dipping into theyre waters -so 2 years down the road i'll be closer to swimming.
REVIEWS--"THE MONGREL'S HOARD"
Ralph and I played together in the Bad Livers. We did about 1,500 shows together, all over the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The label I currently work with on my own music, Terminus Records, has released Ralph's first self-recorded, self-penned effort. I wanted to tell you about it.
Trash Fish won't be for everybody, and that's good news for the folks that like a little gravy on their music. To digress a bit, I think it's a good deal for everybody to play banjo music, and would encourage anyone to do so, and it makes me feel good to see banjo records come out. But in all honesty, there's a big thing missing from today's usual suspects. It's called vibe, or groove.
I think the old 78 records of picking music were more interesting than the incredible volume of recorded offerings we have deluging the market these days. The reason is you could hear the Earth in the old records. Modern efforts have removed all those elements from commercial recordings. Not to mention any names, but all these modern records sound alike; they're engineered with the same aesthetic. And they have been for over 15 years. Yikes, many of the records I'm looking at have a cast of about 20 people on every project. The same 20 people on 2,000 different CDs. And you know, the repertoire is handled in much the same way: with the exact same reverb times and compression ratios.
As we know from politics, movies, high school popularity contests, religion, and novels, the effect is mind-numbing sameness. Regionalistic differences are lost. One knows what something's going to contain just by peeking at the cardboard cutout version of it.
So that all said, here comes Ralph White's record. I would caution folks that might take exception to the above verbiage to avoid this record at all costs. For in Trash Fish, we find a few things that are danged hard to find in today's world -- art, music, expression. I think it's a fantastic record and literally drips with all the things you don't hear anymore. I've always used the term "grease." Tommy Jarrell was greasy. Bill Monroe was greasy.
Bluegrass Lite, Old Time Lite doesn't even really register as music to me. People of the Earth play the best music. The vibe harks back and forward at the same time. There's a richness of experience. There's a wide range of emotions and feelings stirred in the central nervous system. Ralph's record is a complete musical statement. Ralph has dirt under his fingernails and climbs around in trees with a chain saw for a living. He has slept on the ground for a third of his life. He has trapped raccoons and possums and is most comfortable out in the middle of nowhere, alone, playing his fiddle to the campfire and the creatures. He's like a 78 record come to life.
REVIEWS--"THE ATAVISTIC WALTZ"
"White has remained as hella underground as ever, carving a solo niche by combining his banjo, fiddle, and accordion with African thumb pianos. First floated on 2001's totally underrated Trash Fish and fleshed out a little more on the 2007 CD-R Navasota River Devil Squirrel (now reissued on LP), White finds the palette's deepest settings yet with the new Atavistic Waltz...on "The End of the Tar," White's arrangement--banjo, kalimba, fiddle--basks in an authentic herky-jerky loveliness, as if kalimbas were there all along on old Dock Boggs records, buried by the ravages of primitive recording equipment"
REVIEWS--"NAVASOTA RIVER DEVIL SQUIRREL"
Non-traditional traditional? Indo-African mountain songs? Rocking-chair string ephemera? What longtime Austinite and former Bad Liver Ralph White puts on albums and onstage is so mind-boggling and vast, it forces those of us in the description business down a treacherous path. His five-string fretless banjos and African kalimbas – resonating thumb pianos – mix with accordion and fiddle to create an Eastern Appalachian sound, but it's much more complicated than that. White's second solo release, Navasota River Devil Squirrel, is displacement on disc. It's the culmination of years of experimentation and travel woven into a magic carpet, jetting off hither and fro, crossing continent boundaries and civil wars. Opening traditional "Look Down That Road," transforms into a psychedelic atlas on White's twangy voice and hypnotic kalimba. Originals like instrumental fiddle/accordion romp "Navasota River Devil Squirrel 1 & 2," the vocally distorted "History 1 (Conspiracy Theory)," and eerie closer "Devil Squirrel 3" saddle up alongside early-century fables as though they were long-lost cousins. White's melodies and lyrics scratch the surface of the Old World, leaving just a contemporary hint of now. Therein lies the magic.
Trash Fish, the solo debut record from former Bad Livers' banjoist Ralph White, is at once charming, personal, magical, and wonderful. The base of the music is found in the old-timey mountain songs that also formed the root of White's work with the Livers. The spooky melodies (both traditional and original) are treated by White and crafted gorgeously on his eight-track. Like the Bad Livers, White takes an unorthodox approach to traditional American music and, in the bargain, has created something more beautifully in touch with the spirit of the music than most staunch traditionalists could ever dream of. Buried in the opening number, "Unwound," and emerging little by little over the disc's dozen tracks, White finds an utterly new and beautiful combination of traditional instruments: the five-string banjo mixed with the mbira and kalimba, African thumb pianos. The gritty gutbucket pluck of the banjo melds gorgeously with the warm, gentle twinkle of the metal percussion. It is with these tools that White turns in one of the most original performances of "Corrinna" (among other tunes) that has been heard in quite some time. His voice is casually confident, singing in the ageless drawl that permeates mountain music...all that is needed to convey the majesty of the music is the banjo, the mbira, and White's voice. A wonderful album.
REVIEWS--"RALPH WHITE & HORA FLORA SOUND SYSTEM"
Ralph White's latest, The Mongrel's Hoard (Monofonus), proves yet again you can stretch the limits of Americana if you're resourceful enough. The onetime Bad Liver's approach to writing and performing has always been workmanlike, and with banjo, kalimba, accordion, and fiddle, he makes good use of decades of material. The one original tune, "Western Country," is pure White lament, but the remainder is all covers: Pink Floyd's "Fat Old Sun" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" ride next to 1970s folkie Barbara Keith's "The Bramble and the Rose" and obscure Aborigine band Coloured Stone's "When I'm Gonna Learn." It's a testament to White's talents that he can make them sound even older than they are. (CD release: Tuesday, April 13, United States Art Authority.)
Two players: White, who plays kalimbas (a thumb piano variant), fiddles, and banjo; and Raub at the wheel of the Horaflora Sound System (prepared speakers and objects plus transducers). It’s unclear if this music was improvised together or assembled from separate recordings. The question isn’t really important because the music is so incredibly neat sounding and nice. There are moments of oddly soothing metallic plinking and patter (“Buzzard and Rattlesnake Share A Meal of Honeycomb”), skeletal violins echoing across pools of mercury (“A Space Between A Chimney and A Swift”), and bike spoke banjo touring arctic and equatorial environments (“Wildflower Face, Insect Eyes”). Technically an electroacoustic album, it never feels like a study on some type of compositional device. It’s just great listening. The interplay is often surprising and textures overlap serendipitously. The song with the droning fiddle verges on the psych folk; especially when entwined with Raub’s sparkling transducer pitches. Inspired stuff.
Avoiding the power of high-tech studios, Pro Tools, outside influences, and the fast-paced environment of city life, Ralph White took a few items to a shack: a banjo, a few other instruments, and an 8-track recorder. There he found solitude and was able to conceive an album as natural and fulfilling as nature. An album that possessed the same charms as a babbling brook, an afternoon stroll through a forest, and a swim in a lake with a bunch of friends.
Sparse and intimate, what White does with his banjo, play subtle, supple old-time country songs that will remind you of being a child, looking on in amazement at never new thing you learned, thinking it was the greatest thing in the world.
The songs flow together so easily, from one to the next, fitting together without any trouble. White's voice is raw and unabashed, just going along its day, much like the banjo, without a care in the world, but a song in its heart.
This is what Americana is about, simplicity, feeling, and honesty. Stripped to the bare essentials, White touches upon the foundation of country while stamping his own name on it.