"Better Days a Comin"
CD on Wildgoose WGS431CD
"Living Tradition" - August November 2019
few sparkles of that distinctive banjo; a few notes of that
unique voice and this can only be one person - Sara!
Sara Grey and her son, Keiron Means will already be well known to many FolkNW readers having performed in the area at a number of folk clubs and festivals over the years. 2019 is a particularly significant year for Sara as it will be 50 years since she first set foot in the UK and it was therefore a special pleasure to recieve her latest CD from Doug Bailey's Wild Goose studio for review.
The music here is original American 'Old Songs'
performed with panache and experience with Sara's superb banjo
playing and Keiron's masterful guitar work combining with their
great vocal harmonies to produce a truly authentic sound.
There are 16 tracks two of which also include
tunes following the featured song. The repertoire is wide
ranging from traditional ballads through to blues and gospel
songs some collected from source singers and others via fellow
The pair open the proceedings with a lively
rendition of Goodbye My Lover I'm Gone the chorus being
immediately a sing along one. A number of the songs
illustrate the hardships experienced by the early settlers such
as Going to Kansas from the singing of Everett Pitt, The
Hills of Mexico from Roscoe Holcomb and The Sky from Derroll
Adams. Steamboat Whistle is sung solo by Keiron giving him a
chance to show off his excellent blues guitar style picking
skills. Among my personal favourite tracks are State of Arkansas
beautifully sung solo by Sara, the singalong gospel song On The
Way To Jordan and Away Down The Road which '..describes the
lives and challenges of Southern workers who moved up to Detroit
to work in factories during the war effort..' a contemporary
song written by Craig Johnson.
The sleeve notes written comprehensively by Sara
are both useful and interesting giving the background to the
songs most of which will be new to most if us including myself.
This is a lovely album which I can highly
recommend for those who are interested in obtaining a reference
library of the 'real' American traditional music (there's no
'Country & Western' style stuff here!) and to their many
fans throughout the UK. It's available, as always, from the Wild
Goose web site and is distributed by Proper Music.
It’s no exaggeration to say that
Sara Grey’s been a cornerstone of the traditional and old-time
music scene for close on half a century. She grew up in New
Hampshire, and soon became immersed in the mountain music
tradition – banjo and songs – of North Carolina, devoting her
life to studying and collecting this music, especially the
migration of songs from the British Isles to North America
(and back); the ongoing process of continually updating the
fruits of her studies enables her to keep her own performing
repertoire fresh (and her approach and personality both
timeless and seemingly ageless).
David Kidman 10 September, 2019
The material ranges over a variety of sources. The opener, ‘Goodbye My Lover I’m Gone’, is an old-time song that is far too cheerful for its title. Two tracks on we have ‘Silk Merchant’s Daughter’, probably from an old broadside which begins its story in Liverpool docks. Although the song was originally British the language and harmonies here are definitely American. ‘My Dearest Dear’, ‘Red Robber’ and ‘Rainbow Willow’ also crossed the Atlantic sometime during their evolution, ‘The Carolina Lady’ sounds as though its origins lay in Europe but it’s found all through the Maritime from Nova Scotia southwards.
‘On The Way To Jordan’ is the first of two gospel songs, this one full of optimism in contrast to ‘When This World is At It’s End’ which, appropriately, closes the set. There are some modern songs here but without being told which they were you’d need to listen carefully to pick them out. Joe Newberry’s ‘I Know Whose Tears’ comes from a Kipling poem and Craig Johnson’s brilliant ‘Away Down The Road’ is set in the 1940s but it’s structured in such a way that it could be a century older. ‘The Hills Of Mexico’ is the origin of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Buffalo Skinners’ and I suppose that any banjo player has to sing a Derroll Adams song so Sara does.
There are sixteen songs on Better Days A Comin and not one is superfluous. Amongst the fun of ‘Railroad’ and the rolling blues of ‘Steamboat Whistle’ there is a sense of melancholy and hardship which is entirely appropriate in our current climate.Dai Jeffries
Hard to imagine but Sara has been performing on this side of the pond for fifty years during which time she has released a number of recordings some solo, some in collaboration with other singers, notably Ed Trickett, Elle Ellis and most recently her son, Kieron Means, but all with one thing in common, a consistently high quality of performance and an interesting selection of material. Of this recording Sara says "Kieron and I wanted to make this CD together, just the two of us as a statement of our love for the old songs and tunes" and to say they have done so successfully would be nothing less than an understatement.
Sixteen tracks, all with an authentic Old Timey feel, present an enjoyable mixture of traditional and contemporary songs and tunes. Performed with flair and authority Sara's deceptively simple old time banjo and Kieron's exceptional guitar playing combined with empathetic harmonies, reflect their statement perfectly. The material ranges over a variety of sources from traditional ballads, blues and gospel songs to more recent compositions though I defy any listener to pick these out without the aid of Sara's highly informative sleeve notes. The CD opens with the surprisingly upbeat, feel good, old time song Goodbye My Lover I'm Gone to be followed by Going To Kansas, a song recording the hardships experienced by early settlers and a track I fell in love with on first hearing and still enjoy despite its rather melancholy theme. It is also one of two songs where a tune has been added, on this occasion Ernest Carpenter's lament for his flooded homestead Elk River Blues, the other being Doc Boggs Last Chance which fits seamlessly as a conclusion to The Hills Old Mexico, the song which probably inspired Woody Guthrie's 'Buffalo Skinners'.
Kieron's voice has matured and hardened over the past few years and his gritty burr blends terrifically with Sara on harmonies and the mix of outstanding blues guitar and vocals on his solo number Steamboat Whistle is more than just attention grabbing. The album contains its share of noteworthy a capella songs. Sarah sings the somewhat strange story of The Carolina Lady whose method for choosing between two brothers is extreme to say the least and State of Arkansas a multi‑layered ballad with undertones of abject poverty and deception. Both Sara and Kerion duet on the story of cannibalism amongst castaway mariners Silk Merchant's Daughter and Craig Johnson's Away Down The Road. Spine tingling material. Amongst the remaining tracks can be found a beautiful version of Deroll Adams The Sky and a fascinating variant of Locks and Bolts Rainbow Willow. The CD finishes with the rousing gospel blues number When This World Is At An End.
There is not a dud amongst the sixteen tracks and Doug Bailey at WildGoose Studio has not only made a first class job with production but also added yet another first‑rate CD to its catalogue.