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John Cohen

Stories the Crow Told Me – 1999 (Acoustic Disc)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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CDs by John Cohen

Despite the fact that this disk is John Cohen's first solo, he is no stranger to fans of old-time music. As a musicologist, author and record producer he has given us wonderful collections like Smithsonian's Mountain Music of Kentucky and founded the quintessential revival outfit, the New Lost City Ramblers.

Accompanying himself on guitar and banjo, Cohen explores 23 tunes drawn both from his record collection and contact with great old-time musicians. He has a strong supporting cast: multi-instrumentalists David Grisman and Jody Stecher and fiddler Sue Draheim. Contemporary performance of vintage musical forms is always a perilous gamble. By doing so, an artist risks redundancy and instant obsolescence. This record, though, is vibrant, engaging, and thoroughly sincere.

So why is Cohen so successful here? The primary reason is that he has an astonishing grasp of the roots of this music. He understands that this genre is not one bound by rules, but by an unyielding experimental urge. Banjo tunings are particularly flexible, creating fresh and captivating sonorities.