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Eric Brace and Karl Straub

Hangtown Dancehall – 2014 (Red Beet)

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

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CDs by Eric Brace and Karl Straub

For the past few years, Eric Brace has made quite a name for himself, not only as an accomplished singer/songwriter and leader of the Nashville-based band Last Train Home, but also as a budding entrepreneur whose Red Beet Records label has helped spotlight the flourishing East Nashville music scene as well as the burgeoning careers of that area's local artists.

Even so, this latest endeavor, which Brace wrote and produced himself, and subsequently brought to fruition with collaborator Karl Straub and a host of notable luminaries - Wesley Stace, Darrell Scott, Kelly Willis, Jason Ringenberg, Andrea Zorn, Peter Cooper, Fats Kaplan and Tim O'Brien among them - easily qualifies as his most ambitious effort to date. An Americana opera of sorts, it tells the story of the California gold rush through the eyes of Betsy and Isaac from the song "Sweet Betsy From Pike," two young lovers who take the perilous journey out west in hopes of finding their fortune. The story has special significance for Brace; as he explains in the libretto, he was born in California, mere miles from the place where gold was first discovered.

While setting this story to music must have been a formidable task, Brace, Straub and company have pulled it off with tremendous aplomb. The music sounds like vintage folk, applied with an affable, embracing narrative that engages the listener immediately. The gentle traditional instrumental Sweet Betsy From Pike, the touchingly sweet Pile County Rose, the rugged ramble King Midas, and the hopeful ballad From Pearl River to Gold Mountain all attest to Brace's powers of expression. It's no exaggeration to declare that "Hangtown Dancehall" a hallmark of Brace's budding career and ought to be a country classic. And that is golden indeed.