"Better Days a Comin"

CD on Wildgoose  WGS431CD
August 2019

See Notes
 



"Living Tradition" - August November 2019

FolkNW

Folk Radio

Folking.com

Northern Sky


"Living Tradition" - August November 2019

A few sparkles of that distinctive banjo; a few notes of that unique voice and this can only be one person - Sara!

This comes from a different label for this mother and son combination, but like nearly all their predecessors this is on a British label from two artists who now live in the USA.  Unusually, there is no guest fiddler this time and in some ways this adds to the strength of this offering.
What is certain is that every aspect of the music - choice of material, singing and musicianship - is excellent and the close familial empathy of their performance is an enduring delight.  Their voices have different qualities but the blend when they sing together is very pleasing.

There are so many highlights. Kieron is in particularly good voice here and his solo blues this time is Steamboat Whistle and the sense of space and commitment make this a high point.  Sara has that knack of choosing items that bring out the beauty of her voice and Derroll Adams' The Sky is one of these, one from her huge repertoire that is often included in her live performances. The songs are mainly traditional, but old or modern, a narrative quality predominates leaving the listener with the feeling of a story well told.

Despite her enormous contribution to the folk scene on both sides of the pond, when it comes to awards from EFDSS, BBC Folk Awards etc, Sara somehow misses out. Rather like the late Tom Paley, she seems to suffer through being an American who has spent most of her life in the UK - both these great artists and major contributors miss out. In both cases it is a grave omission.

Vic Smith

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FolkNW

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 performers.

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.

Derek Gifford

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FolkRadio.co.uk

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).
 
Sara’s one of the most charismatic personalities on the folk scene. She possesses a truly lovely singing voice that displays a companionable warmth, great feeling and depth of knowledge; she’s also a seasoned exponent of the five-string banjo. Her son Kieron has definitely inherited Sara’s passion and talent, for his own singing and guitar playing is clearly from the same stock and displays an equal enthusiasm for embracing, researching and carrying on the tradition. Sara and Kieron have been touring together for a good ten years now, and their bond is palpably close and empathic; an evening spent in their company is a treasurable experience indeed – as is this CD.
Better Days a Comin is Sara and Kieron’s second jointly-billed album (although Kieron contributed plenty to Sara’s 2009, nominally-solo outing Sandy Boys), and it’s a proudly exclusive duo project – says Sara: “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”. Amen to that! This new CD follows the same tried-and-tested pattern as its immediate predecessor (the 2013 Fellside release Down In Old Dolores). In other words, an intelligently sequenced collection of real-deal American music, ranging from old-time songs, ballads and laments through to country blues, gospel and prime newer compositions in the traditional idiom. Although this is a brand new album, within a couple of bars of hearing its opening song (Goodbye My Lover I’m Gone) you feel like you’re greeting an old and very dear friend (just like the feeling you get when you attend one of Sara & Kieron’s gigs!). This is one of those old songs you quite honestly believe you’ve known for ages, yet one for which even Sara in her liner note fails to recall the source after much brain-racking… It’s a feelgood opener for a feelgood disc – but don’t let that adjective mislead you into expecting something light or insubstantial in any way. It’s indicative that (the aforementioned track aside) some of the most feelgood renditions on the disc are also the most plaintive in character and seriously haunting. Going To Kansas, which follows, is a good example (it’s a version of The Honest Farmer, taken from the singing of Everett Pitt, and leads beautifully into the soulful, gently mournful banjo tune Elk River Blues). The distinctly bluesy I Know Whose Tears, written by Sara and Kieron’s friend Joe Newberry and derived from a Kipling poem, also brilliantly fits this bill.
 
The plaintive The Hills Of Mexico is obviously a variation of the Woody Guthrie number Buffalo Skinners – but, as Sara points out, Woody’s version is more likely derived from this one; Sara then caps the song off with a wonderfully quirky Dock Boggs banjo tune Last Chance. A deeper poignancy characterises Sara’s rendition of “Banjo Man” Derroll Adams’ highly evocative song The Sky, with Kieron’s delicate harmonies reinforcing those qualities. Further down the line, My Dearest Dear finds another instance of the satisfying combination of the thematically familiar and the interestingly unusual that Sara and Kieron have over the years made their trademark. As indeed in their different ways are Red Robber (a variant of the Child 90 ballad adapted by Bob Coltman from diverse elements), and the truly exultant call-and-response song On The Way To Jordan.
 
Sara and Kieron bring an intimate sense of companionship to their singing and storytelling on all songs and ballads, a quality which is ideally – and impeccably – mirrored in the simple but intense and tremendously close-knit guitar-and-banjo instrumentation. And yet there’s also a quite unexpected degree of forward thrust in the playing – witness Kieron’s forthright, rhythmically-driven guitar on album closer When This World Is At Its End, a rousing old gospeller of whose provenance even Sara cheerfully admits to remaining ignorant. And it’s great to hear how Kieron’s voice has matured apace even since the Down In Old Dolores set, for it’s developed a distinctive burr and gravelly tone that’s every bit as attractive in counterpoint as in his solo work. In this respect, intriguingly, Kieron’s account of Rainbow Willow is a fine illustration of Sara’s liner note postulation that “often a singer will unconsciously gravitate to a version that suits their personality and circumstances”.
 
Silk Merchant’s Daughter finds Sara and Kieron duetting in spine-tingling a cappella mode, a striking demonstration of how marvellously Sara and Kieron’s mother-and-son voices work together in vibrato-rich close harmony. The factory worker’s song Away Down The Road (written by West Virginia musician and singer Craig Johnson) provides another example of this closeness, this time with Kieron taking the lead. Sara also delivers a couple of brief solo songs – The Carolina Lady and State Of Arkansas – with clear relish and panache. Indeed, the delivery of every individual song is both exemplary and insightful.
 
The recording of this disc also mirrors those very attributes; the expert Doug Bailey production in the best traditions of the WildGoose house, and firmly in tune with the performers themselves. The CD’s presentation is bright and attractive, with a nicely homespun cover painting by Sara’s son David, while Sara’s own liner notes furnish the ideal combination of detail and economy. And I just love the built-in optimism of the album title too (hey, we can still but hope…!).

David Kidman 10 September, 2019

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Folking.com

There is something special about real traditional folk music. It doesn’t matter where it comes from or what language it is, it stands out as something special and that’s what Better Days A Comin provides. Sara Grey and her son Kieron Means have never been into over-arranging their music although they have been known to employ Ben Paley’s fiddle – but not here. Two voices, banjo and guitar: what you see is what you get. It particularly struck me listening to Sara’s plaintive banjo on ‘Elk River Blues’ at the end of the second track.

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

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Northern Sky


Sara Grey, whose voice has been a familiar sound on the world folk scene over the last half century, is joined here by her son Kieron Means, whose own voice is reminiscent of Doc Watson, which brings a sense of authenticity to this fine collection of both traditional and contemporary songs. Sara’s reputation on the Old Time music scene, both as a fine solo singer and banjo player, as well as a collaborator in her popular duo with Ellie Ellis, is well documented. Those of us who remember the 1980s will remember some of the duo’s engaging shows on the British folk club circuit at the time.
Unsurprisingly, both mother and son sound good together here, their empathetic voices melding like honey. Both Sara and Kieran are steeped in the traditions of American folk music as opposed to what we like to refer to as Americana, which the two musicians are only too keen to point out. With over half a century as a performer behind her, Sara has a rich repertoire to draw upon and on Better Days a Comin, the sixteen songs and tunes showcases the duo’s familial unity, especially on such songs as the lilting “On the Way to Jordan”, from which the album gets its title, the blues-drenched “I Know Those Tears”, the apocalyptic gospel of “When This World is at its End” and the unaccompanied “Away Down the Road.” 


10TH SEP 2019 / ALLAN WILKINSON

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