They may not smoke marijuana in Muskogee, but they sure do love country music in places like Vinstra, Gulsrud, and Seljord. Last weekend, just a couple of days before the Austin-based group High Plains Jamboree took off for a few weeks of concerts throughout Switzerland and into Norway, I got a chance to see them perform at the American Roots Music Festival on the grounds of Caramoor Center for Music and The Arts, a short ride north of Manhattan.
Aristotle is credited with saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” To his point, while the four musicians in HPJ are each outstanding and successful on their own, together they create a sound very different and unique. While guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, upright bass, and close harmony vocals screams “bluegrass,” HPJ’s vibe is a modern country-western style, where song composition, lyrics, and virtuoso performance take them to a different plane (pun intended) than other stringbands out on the road today.
Last April, I stumbled upon a late-2015 album titled Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell, and it immediately became one of my favorite song collections that I still can’t stop listening to. Not being familiar with her previous work, I discovered that Leigh was a founding member of HPJ, that she often writes and tours with her partner Noel McKay as a duo, has had songs recorded by Sunny Sweeney, the Carper Family, and Lee Ann Womack, and, as I discovered when I saw the band perform, is a smokin’ hot mandolin player.
Noel McKay is a songwriter from Texas who met Guy Clark back in 1993, and together they wrote “El Coyote,” which appears on Clark’s Grammy-winning My Favorite Picture of You album. Performing as the McKay Brothers with sibling Hollin, Gurf Morlix produced their 2003 album and said, “Noel was just starting to become a really good songwriter. I saw it coming. Then he hooked up with Brennen, who is fantastically talented. They became a couple and everybody was so pleased about that.”
Morlix also produced the Leigh-McKay duet release Before the World Was Made in 2013 and adds, “On top of being extremely fine human beings who can both play guitar and sing really well, it’s the writing. These songs are really sophisticated.”
Born in Kentucky and raised in Alaska, fiddler Beth Chrisman moved to Austin back in 2006 and is a member of the Carper Family. Their debut studio album Back When was named Best Country Album by the 2012 Independent Music Awards. The band has performed on Mountain Stage and A Prairie Home Companion. Chrisman has recorded and toured with Alice Gerrard, John C. Reilly, Hjames Hand, and the Heartless Bastards. In addition to really tasty fiddlin’, she has an incredible voice that soars as much in harmony as when she takes a solo.
Bassist and oldtime banjo player Simon Flory is an interesting dude from Indiana who has played throughout the Midsouth with bluegrass legend Donny Catron (Tennessee Gentlemen, Jesse McReynolds, Doyle Lawson). He also studied and taught at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, and after working in the bass boat industry, scrapping metal, logging cedar trees, hauling hay and working cows on ranches, he sold his truck and his pistol to record a solo album, Unholy Town.
What really worked for me when I saw their set was how they each took turns at vocals. The harmonies came at you in various combinations, instruments were switched around, their staging and positions shifted. I’ve got to tell you: I love this band.
You can see them in Norway this month, and then Leigh and McKay will do dates in the UK before the band comes together again for August dates in Alaska. Check out their website for more shows (Brooklyn 9/25), pick up or stream their EP, and fly off into the depths of the interwebs in search of their various projects and videos.
While the whole is great, the parts are as equally satisfying. Good stuff.
This post was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside on the No Depression website.
Photo by Ali Copeland