Eric Brace & Peter Cooper - C&O Canal

Red Beet Records RBR CD-0021

This latest duo album by the estimable Eric Brace & Peter Cooper is lovingly inspired by nights at the Birchmere, a bluegrass-folk hangout in Washington DC. Both made it their regular Thursday night-out venue of choice in the 1970s and 1980s when the Seldom Scene held court. This was way before Eric and Peter were known to each other, and it was years later that they realised that in all probability, they had unknowingly been at the club at the same time, cheering on their musical heroes. Not only did they see the Seldom Scene, but also other stellar performers locally such as the Country Gentlemen, Jonathan Edwards, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith or the lesser-known, but equally talented Rosslyn Mountain Boys and John Jackson. As I looked at the track listing of this album and read the reminisces of Eric and Peter of those far-off days, I was similarly transported back in time to the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was hungrily snapping up the latest releases by the likes of the Country Gentlemen, Jonathan Edwards, Alice Gerrard & Hazel Dickens, John Hartford and John Denver, all of whom had a connection to the Washington DC folk and bluegrass scene that Eric and Peter were talking about so eloquently. Unlike them, I had to satisfy my love of this music mainly in my front room with the stereo turned up nice and loud, or if the kids were in bed, through my trusty, over-sized headphones.

Listeners will find great eclectic songwriting with tunes rooted in American history (John Wilkes Booth), exploring relationships (If That’s The Way You Feel) or nostalgia for times gone by (C&O Canal), all driven by soothing vocals over a rootsy back-drop of instrumentation provided by an A-list line-up of acoustic players including Andrea Zonn (violin, vocals), Jeff Taylor (accordion), Justin Moses (Dobro, mandolin, banjo), Mark Fain (bass), Lynn Williams (drums) all guided by producer Thomm Jutz (acoustic guitar, slide guitar, mandola). The roots here are of life and love and of the past and the future. For all the tracks, these roots have been patiently dug up and brushed off; their essence exposed. I’ve loved Boulder To Birmingham with an endless passion since I first heard it by Emmylou Harris back in the spring of 1975 and never thought I’d ever hear a version that would move me in quite that same way, but somehow Peter Cooper’s heartfelt vocal along with Andrea Zonn’s haunting violin and harmony vocal moved me closer to tears than I would care to admit.

Another song I never tire of hearing is John Starling’s He Rode All The Way To Texas and again this is one of the most emotional versions I’ve heard. It’s not just the lead vocal, but the way the subtle accordion sets the mood before the blue Dobro notes prick the heartstrings as the ethereal accordion harmonises delicately in the background. It’s been many years since I’d heard Blue Ridge, an exquisite bluegrass song about the irresistible call of home and here they remind me that this is indeed a great little song. Been Awhile, a new song to me, though it dates back many years to the mid-1970s, is one of those folk-pop gems that leaves you feeling that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Not so with Alice Gerrard’s Love Was The Price, a desolate song of break-up that is final with only darkness remaining.

A summer-easing-into-autumn record, the kind you slowly fall in love with through a flickering heat-haze that then keeps you warm when the cold creeps in, this album moves faultlessly across soft ballad and tough narrative, building layer upon layer into a collection of eloquent interpretations. It’s hard to imagine a more heartfelt and well-deserved tribute to a place or time in one’s music discovery, and it should be considered an essential purchase for any folk or country collection.