Now, I like weird, and much Appalachian folk is plenty weird, but give me Bascom Lamar Lunsford and his decidedly welcoming Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina, a collection of recordings repackaged and released by Smithsonian Folkways, any day.
Lunsford’s approach differs from many of his Appalachian brethren. For one, his strengths more closely mirror those of balladeers like Buell Kazee and lie in opposition to the cascading torrents of notes and shrill vocals favored by the likes of Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, and Hobart Smith. And though I tend to prefer the approach of the latter group of musicians, Lunsford’s quietly awesome emotional range is damn hard to dislike.
For another, that “high lonesome sound” of which Bob Dylan spoke (and which is the name of Roscoe Holcomb’s peerless collection of Folkways recordings) isn’t as evident on this record. Lunsford’s selection of songs is entirely peaceful, soothing, and warmly inviting. That doesn’t mean these songs aren’t moving. It just means that they trade more in nostalgia and simple prettiness, as on the quietly gorgeous “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” than they do haunting eerieness. Even when Lunsford puts down his banjo and goes a capella, the results are comforting, not estranging, as on the sweetly affecting “To the Pines, to the Pines,” with its deliberate, lilting melody.
“To the Pines, to the Pines” is as good an example as any to illustrate another crucial difference in Lunsford’s music—his voice. It’s not his range, which, while certainly adequate, isn’t remarkable. Rather, it’s the elusive character of his singing, which is at once lived-in and yearning, imbued with a deeply affecting warmth. While Lunsford may never blaze up the fretboard like many other clawhammer masters from the mountaintops, these tunes don’t demand that he does, and his voice is the perfect complement to his stately, unadorned banjo playing. An extra treat: the spoken introductions he often gives his songs. These intros, which serve to provide lineage and personal color to the recordings, are sometimes found on similar folk catalogs, but here, Lunsford’s conversational homeyness makes these positively endearing.
Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs is incredibly evocative, reminiscent of lazy afternoons spent sitting on a porch, sipping cool sweet tea from a tumbler beaded with sweat, the warm sun filtering through the still hickories, a sweet grassy fragrance in the air. It’s perfect summer music. While it might not be representative of the otherworldliness characteristic of other Appalachian songs, that absence of unfamiliarity might actually make Lunsford’s collection of songs an ideal entry point for folks interested in the genre but a little spooked by the off-key caterwauls of many of Appalachian folk’s more wild-eyed practitioners (I love his voice now, but the first time I heard Roscoe Holcomb’s shrill, nasal squawk, I was, shall we say, not immediately won over). Close your eyes and hum along: