John Reischman and The Jaybirds – On That Other Green Shore
Corvus – 2017
John Reischman is a familiar name to bluegrass insiders, perhaps less so on the broader folk scene here in the UK. This softly-spoken yet supremely gifted musician is known as a mandolin player of exquisite skill and tone, and also as a writer of some of the most popular contemporary bluegrass and old time tunes – favourites for sessions and covers include his instrumentals Saltspring and The North Shore. Reischman cut his teeth with some California bands of now-legendary status in bluegrass history – the Tony Rice Unit and the Good Ol’ Persons (alongside female bluegrass pioneers Kathy Kallick, Laurie Lewis and Sally Van Meter). These days he’s a successful solo artist and in-demand collaborator, having won a Grammy as part of Todd Phillips’ all-star tribute to Bill Monroe, and with a sideline exploring Latin American roots music with Seattle acoustic guitarist John Miller. He has toured and recorded as bandleader of The Jaybirds since the 1990s, the current line-up of which has been together for over 15 years now. This quintet of fine musicians from across the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the USA manages to combine strands of both modern and traditional bluegrass in an engaging way, and this collection has a fair few gems to uncover.
The album kicks off with the sprightly instrumental Wellesley Station (this one by banjoist Nick Hornbuckle). John himself contributes a couple of original tunes to the album, Red Diamond being a classic catchy Reischman number, the title apparently a tribute to the mandolins of the same name. There are tasteful solo breaks throughout, with the mandolin, fiddle, banjo and guitar each taking the lead in time-honoured bluegrass fashion. The second Reischman original, Daylighting the Creek, is another earworm that immediately has your foot tapping and I can definitely see it becoming a session standard on the festival scene. Thistletown is a heartbreakingly lovely mournful waltz, written by fiddler Greg Spatz’s wife Caridwen Irvine-Spatz, herself also a fine fiddle player.
The Jaybirds can cut it vocally too, with most of the lead vocals shared between Trisha Gagnon (vocals/double bass) and Jim Nunally (vocals/guitar). With everyone except Gregory Spatz (fiddle) credited on vocals, there’s also plenty of top notch close harmony singing, a pleasure to hear and one of the hallmarks of the bluegrass tradition.
Don’t You Hear the Lambs A-Cryin’ (from the Seeger family version of a traditional gospel song) is a pint-sized but charming showcase for the voices, alongside lilting mandolin. Today Has Been a Lonesome Day is a song which has been recorded by numerous legendary artists (Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, the Osborne Brothers and many more). It’s one of those timeless songs that still manage to sound fresh and contemporary, and this cracking rendition manages to deliver the classic combo of appallingly dark lyrics with toe-tapping bluegrass delivery, complete with Monroe-style mandolin playing.
The Jaybirds stick with the Carter Family but up the pace for You’ve Got to Righten That Wrong. There are some dazzling displays of virtuosity on all the lead instruments on this one, mandolin, guitar, fiddle and banjo all taking flight to produce a traditional-style gem that still clocks in at under two and a half minutes. There’s a definite bluesy feel to a majority of the songs and tunes throughout most of On That Other Green Shore, which I really love and prefer to the more straight down the middle “trad bluegrass” style.
There are one or two songs on the album that are a little sentimental for my taste, although the musicianship remains flawless throughout. I favour the bluesy, even funky sound that the band nails so well on songs like Green Pastures (the Osburn Thorpe original that’s also known as Green Pastures in the Sky and has been recorded by Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks, not the traditional gospel song of the same name). This version features a wonderful string-bending banjo, soulful fiddle and gorgeous throaty lead vocals from Gagnon. There’s also a feel-good version of one of my favourite, slightly more obscure Beatles songs – Two of Us is driven along by Hornbuckle’s sparkling banjo and with pitch-perfect fills from Greg Spatz on fiddle and Jim Nunally on guitar. There’s some spot-on harmony singing throughout as well.
On That Other Green Shore showcases an accomplished, experienced band at the peak of their powers, with musicianship of the very highest order. The Jaybirds put their own particular stamp on bluegrass, old time and acoustic roots music, with a satisfying blend of traditional and modern styles, and they also give the impression that they really enjoy playing together. There’s plenty here to please both bluegrass traditionalists and lovers of modern American folk music, especially for those with an appreciation of great harmony singing as well as masterful instrumental playing.
John Reischman and The Jaybirds – On That Other Green Shore feature in Episode 6 of our Folk Show:
Photo Credit: Mike Melnyk