By now, the buzz is out, extending beyond the cloistered communities of stringband specialists and enthusiasts: old-time music is back. A new generation of banjo pickers are denying themselves fingerpicks, and young fiddlers are scouring field recordings and yellowing-paged tune books.
This resurgence has been shepherded in from a number of angles. The Reeltime Travelers are introducing compelling new songs written in the old-time vein. Old Crowe Medicine Show attack the tradition with a punk rock zeal, whipping audiences into a rabid froth. Other artists - Adrienne Young comes to mind foremost - simply apply a down-home fa-ade to what is essentially contemporary folk-pop. All of this begs the question - where does the big-label debut of Portland's Foghorn String fit in? It's got the po-mo Americana graphics down pat, and the members look like they could have come from a college alt.-country or math-rock band as much as a hillbilly stringband, but...
Listening to the debut in the context of all the old-time reinvention that is going around is a curious exercise. Foghorn lads play it straight. No new original tunes. No U2 covers. No adapted Irish ballads. Theirs is a refreshingly gimmick-free approach that makes the music timeless, hard to place. Cut live - no "fancy stuff," as the notes say - the band makes an impressive clatter that still remains tasteful and inside the lines. Perhaps aware of the wider release this album is receiving through Nettwerk, they lean a little harder on more popular repertoire than on previous self-released albums. Among the tracks are "Stagger Lee," "Short Life of Trouble," "Shortening Bread" and "Sally Anne." Eschewing the obscurity-obsessed tendencies that plague all underground music is a gambit that pays off. Foghorn does proud by the classics by taking them at face value, not mangling them with new ideas, but relying on their own skills as musicians and interpreters.
"Weiser Sunrise" is a humble winner - an album that celebrates the stringband tradition for what it is, rather than attempting to improve it. The Foghorn Stringband are simultaneously a beacon of and impervious to the old-time revival. Whether you're a stringband aficionado or a newcomer, don't let them pass you by.