ARTIST: The Haints Old Time String Band

TITLE: Shout Monah

RELEASE: Spring 2009

By Kathy Bawn

The_Haints_CD_cover.jpgShout Monah is the first album by The Haints Old Time String Band. Featuring Erynn Marshall on fiddle, Jason Romero on banjo and vocals, and Pharis Romero on guitar and vocals, the Haints are anchored near Victoria, BC, where Erynn (now of Galax, Virginia) hails from, and where Jason and Pharis now live. The Haints channel the energy and often-overlooked versatility of old-time Southern music. Yes, this CD is squarely in the old-time tradition -- no experimental blending with other genres or taking off in new directions here. But, no, these songs and tunes don't all fit into a single mold or follow the same groove. The Haints explore the many twisty by-roads of Southern mountain music, pulling together an album that is novel and enticing, all the while hewing close to traditional roots.

Jason Romero is best known as a maker of quality banjos. As you might expect, this guy really knows how to make a banjo sound good. (He also knows how to make a banjo look good, as you can see if you take a look at the nicely done booklet that accompanies the CD.) His version of Hobart Smith's Last Chance ("something all of us will have before we die," said Hobart), paired with an unusual version of Devil's Dream is a highlight of the album. Another outstanding banjo tune, Baptist Shout, based on a 1927 recording by Frank Jenkins, showcases the three-finger style which precedes and influenced the bluegrass banjo style.

Erynn Marshall is an acclaimed fiddler, the first woman and the first person from outside the US to win the Open Fiddle Division at the Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia. One of the tunes she played to win that title, French Carpenter's Old Christmas Morning is included here -- solo fiddle, lots of drone, very spooky and mountain-y. (If you like to contemplate the Celtic roots of Appalachian music, compare Erynn's version of Old Christmas Morning to Tom Anderson and Aly Bain's recording of The Full Rigged Ship. Obviously, the tunes are different, but the phrasing and aesthetic are much closer than geography would suggest.) Erynn is also a serious scholar of old-time music. She is currently the Music Program Manager at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Before that, she devoted several years to interviewing some of the oldest West Virginia musicians, and published a book based on this field research. Erynn shares here some lesser-known tunes from the playing of West Virginia greats Edden Hammons (Jake's Got a Bellyache) and Melvin Wine (Eadle Alley.) A more familiar tune, Buddy Thomas's Sheeps and Hogs Walkin Through the Pasture, gets a different, darker sound when The Haints tune down a step to play it (along with Chattanooga) in the key of F.

The third member of The Haints is Pharis Romero, who plays guitar and does most of the singing. Pharis brought The Haints onto my radar screen this summer. My family attended the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA, where Pharis is known for her charismatic and fun old-time singing workshops. My son had a great time singing in Pharis's Old Time Gospel Choir, and this sparked my interest enough to pick up the CD for our long drive home.

Roughly two-thirds of the CDs tracks are instrumentals; one third have vocals. The Haints choose a really cool set of songs -- and particularly cool versions of these songs, drawing from interesting and unusual sources. Milwaukee Blues, Riley the Furniture Man, and When the Good Lord Sets You Free are peppy toe-tappers, all in one way or another celebrating the joy of surrendering to one's own powerlessness and taking life as it comes. Darker tales involving death, treachery and bad guys are told in Lowe Bonnie and Bob McKinney. My own favorite among the songs here is The Haints' version of Charming Betsy, with its distinctive phrasing and double-time banjo back-up.

When we buy a new CD, one thing many of us most hope for is to be introduced to something new: a tune, a style, a lick, a version of a tune, something that we haven't heard before but that will become an essential part of the soundtrack of our life. As I get older, that seems to happen less often, especially in styles that I already know and love, and even more especially in a genre like old time, where preservation of tradition is an important value. But the Haints deliver on this margin. They give us fresh tunes and fresh takes from the traditional music of the Southern US, played with craftsmanship and inspiration. They draw us into a world that hasn't yet vanished, and won't, as long as talented young players like Erynn, Jason and Pharis keep its music alive.

Kathy Bawn, mom of fiddlers Obin and Anya, plays banjo and guitar and teaches political science at UCLA.