On Among The Oak & Ash, Pennsylvania-born New Yorker Josh Joplin and the Mississippi-bred, Nashville-based Garrison Starr lend their distinctive voices to a dozen folk songs (two of the twelve Joseph Hillstrom and High, Low & Wide were composed by Joplin and Starr, and the rest are traditional) drawn from rural Appalachian and Anglo-American musical idioms. Although much of the material is centuries old, the songs’ eloquently simple melodies, and their universal themes of love, loss, longing, cruelty and death, give them a timeless resonance into which Joplin and Starr tap effortlessly. With the duo’s evocative harmonies complemented by spare, stripped-down arrangements, Among The Oak & Ash is a powerful testament to Joplin and Starr’s interpretive abilities, and to the ageless appeal of these ancient tunes.
These songs are about the human condition, and that’s something that doesn’t change,” Joplin asserts.
Indeed, the album’s 12 songs span a broad range of human experience, encompassing themes of injustice (“Hiram Hubbard”), longing (“The Water Is Wide”), doomed romance (“Pretty Peggy-O”), spirituality (“Angel Gabriel”) and death (“All the Pretty Little Horses”).
“A lot of people think of folk music as something that’s sweet and gentle, but so many of these songs are raunchy and brutal,” Joplin notes. “They cover everything from God to the devil, from unrequited love to murder.”
The seeds of Among The Oak & Ash the name is borrowed from the title of an old folk song were planted during Joplin’s teen years. It was then, as an itinerant high-school dropout, that he was introduced to Appalachian musical traditions via the repertoire of the unsung Indiana combo Hurricane Sadee, whose performances of folk and bluegrass standards opened Joplin’s eyes to a new world of lyrical depth and musical expression. A well-worn Hurricane Sadee cassette became a touchstone for Joplin, and it was from the group that he first learned several of the songs that appear on Among The Oak & Ash. Hurricane Sadee leader Cari Norris is guest banjoist on the album’s version of “Shady Grove.”
As he built his own musical career, Joplin discovered a close friend and kindred musical spirit in fellow singer-songwriter Garrison Starr. Starr, like Joplin, had signed to a major label while still in her teens, and had spent much of her adult life performing her compositions for audiences around the world. So when Joplin began to consider making an album of the folk songs that had influenced him so profoundly, it was natural that he would call upon Starr to collaborate on the project.
Although she had little background in traditional folk, Starr soon embraced the challenge. “Josh came to Nashville, played me songs and talked about his concept,” she recalls. “When I saw how passionate he was about it and we actually sat down and started playing together, I just fell in love with the songs, and fell in love with playing music with Josh. I ended up getting excited about the project because of Josh’s passion for the music.”
Joplin and Starr then called upon a pair of highly regarded Nashville-based players, bassist Brian Harrison (Shelby Lynne) and drummer Bryan Owings (Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin), to complete the project’s instrumental lineup. Recording in the relaxed atmosphere of Harrison’s Nashville home studio, the four musicians approached the sessions with a sense of organic intimacy that’s reflected in the album’s heartfelt performances.
Working without the funding of a record label, and without any outside influences, they were able to focus entirely on the music.
“It was probably the first time I’ve ever been in the studio where I wasn’t worried about anything,” Joplin states. “It was a very relaxed atmosphere, and there was never a sense of being on the clock.”
“It was a great creative environment,” adds Starr. “We recorded everything in six days. We did most of the record live, without many overdubs and not much production. We just went in there and played the songs, and the whole thing felt completely natural and honest.”
Unlike many recent projects that have explored folk and bluegrass material, Joplin and Starr had no interest in creating a self-consciously old-timey sound. “I think that this music has been held onto rather preciously by a lot of the people who’ve revived it,” Joplin observes. “But if you look back on the people who originally created this music, they weren’t purists, they were just expressing themselves with the tools that were available to them at the time. That’s what we wanted to do: to be faithful to the songs without treating them like museum pieces. One of the things that made me want to work with Garrison was her urgency and irreverence, and I think that those qualities played a big part in how the performances turned out.”
With Joplin and Starr’s vibrant musical rapport still evolving, and with a virtually bottomless wellspring of songs from which to draw, Among The Oak & Ash represents a formidable new outlet for both artists.
“We’re definitely looking at this as something that has a future to it,” says Starr.
“We’re still just starting out, but this has been a lot fun, and it’s something that we’d like to keep doing as long as we’re having as a good a time as we’re having now,” adds Joplin. “We definitely won’t run out of material.”
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