There’s authentic, and there’s Tom Paley. In a lifetime dedicated to ensuring that generations of traditional music is available for our listening pleasure, it would be easier to list the artists Tom Paley hasn’t played with or influenced. Sharing the stage with Woody Guthrie and Ledbetter, traversing the States on Lomax-like forays into the heart and soul of American roots music and capturing some of the most essential recordings on County Records in the ‘50s would be enough for anyone but the most vaunted of artists, but this just about breaks the surface of his tireless journey and incredible achievements.
More cultural historian than performing artist, Tom’s is a name held in high regard by those for whom praise and plaudits are showered effusively down from Mount Critique on a regular basis (read: Dylan, Van Ronk, Ry Cooder and more), yet he has remained largely under the radar, content to be getting on with it rather than accept the limelight.
As a result, his is a name that doesn’t immediately spring to mind when the pantheon is rolled out in ‘greatest this, best that’ arguments, but recently this has begun to change. Roots music has benefitted from a recent upswing in interest, especially from those for whom it’s not been first choice before, such that the Tom Paley’s of this world are finding their endeavours rising to the fore as avenues of exploration delve ever deeper. How prescient then, that in Tom’s 84th year, the smallest of flames nurtured by 2012 album Roll On Roll On now has a chance to spread and establish itself via Paley & Son, a second outing on the Hornbeam label.
And yes, it’s a family affair. What else could Ben Paley do but play music? A fiddle player from an early age, Ben has a formidable catalogue of achievements in his own locker; no-one can be surprised that the familial paths would eventually cross on the same recording. Indeed, Paley & Son is something of a publicist’s dream. It features the dobro of BJ Cole, the harmonica of Rob Mason and even the voice of BBC 6 Music’s roots stylist and former pop singer Cerys Matthews. The Guardian’s Robin Denselow provides liner notes and a who’s who of celebratory comments from Bob Harris, Mike Harding et al adorn the PR. Thank the E string it’s as good as they make out.
Mostly traditional numbers (there are no originals), the tunes have been carefully chosen to cover three recurring tenets of Tom’s long career; instrumentals and songs from first half of the Twentieth Century, and a rich seam of irreverent (occasionally risqué) humour. The first of those lodestones arrives in the opening track. The folk equivalent of a lead guitar solo, Yew Piney Mountain’s fiddle pitches and heaves like a ship in a storm. Will Handy’s terrific Didn’t He Ramble builds jocular verses around the banjo in a tale highlighting a black sheep’s reckless lifestyle – ‘He lost his golden jewellery / He liked to lost his life / He lost the car that carried him there / And somebody stole his wife’. The nature of the album’s funny bone extends to the protest-cum-religious number This Train, where the adapted lyrics of a normally serious song hint at a mischievous streak a mile wide; Seeger would be proud. There’s a nice nod to the New Lost City Ramblers too, one of Tom’s seminal outfits in the ’50s.
Done Gone features Mason’s harmonica and includes some lovely breaks mid-song. It introduces a run of typical subject matter for roots music, with Little Sadie’s murderous credentials enhanced by Tom’s fine banjo work and a lyric that provides no explanation of the killer’s motive but plenty of the consequences of such foolhardy moments. The Devil And The Farmer’s Wife is equal parts hilarious and cautionary. The Devil would rather take the farmer’s wife than the muscle of his son, to which the farmer readily agrees, having crops that need planting. This backfires of course when the Devil realises just what a load he’s forced to carry and when she kicks off in Hell Old Nick gives her back to the farmer – you’ve got to love the era before political correctness, right? Other tongue-in-cheek numbers like Old Shoes And Leggings and Follow The Band are equally comical, and the latter’s roundel structure was clearly intended to be played at gatherings of like-minded people, whether dancing, singing or both.
There’s nothing funny about the playing, however; this is virtuoso stuff from start to finish, but laid down with a purposefully live feel that doesn’t spare the rough edges and campfire bonhomie so well suited to the organic nature of the instruments. This is most effective in the trio of instrumentals towards the end of the album; Glory In The Meeting House / Grub Springs / Sugar In The Gourd, all three of which feature fine fiddle.
Tom Paley’s vigour and fine voice throughout puts men half his age to shame. It must be very satisfying to be able to play alongside your son and have the material recorded for posterity, and we as listeners are fortunate that a lifetime of picking and playing is captured for our enjoyment. The valedictory Louis Collins, a Mississippi John Hurt number, reunites the cast of album guests and centres around Tom’s banjo work – a fitting end to an album that, commercial success aside, will remain a mark of the Paley family’s love of roots music for a long time to come.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Out Now via Hornbeam Records
Order it via Amazon