Imagine being seated in the spacious Cincinnati Music Hall, swept up on an arctic January evening last year by the warmth of the Cincinnati Pops. What would be the first human voice you might expect to accompany a program of music celebrating Stephen Foster? Chances are it wouldn’t be Joe Henry. Yet there he was, producer extraordinaire and composer with a surrealist tenacity that suggests David Lynch more than the cherished 19th-century Americana composer. Henry’s elegant yet slightly dangerous reading of Oh Susannah is the lead tune of a 74-minute performance recording called American Originals.
Henry, of course, is a roots-music scholar, and his inclusion in such a program — along with the participation of like-mined Americana stylists including Rosanne Cash, Aoife O’Donovan and Carolina Chocolate Drop co-founder Dom Flemons, among others — places American Originals several tiers above the usual orchestral pops presentation. Pops shows, practically by definition, are geared toward accessible sounds and styles removed, often severely, from an orchestra’s usual classical orbit. Still, striking up a dance card like this raises the bar for pops-oriented programming while enhancing the stylistic theme at hand — in this case, Foster-era works — with leanings to folk, gospel, blues and pre-bluegrass country in ways both credible and complimentary.
The most immediate ringer here is when Cash lets her regally clear but reserved voice wash over My Old Kentucky Home. It’s a moment that lets the lush cohesion of the Cincinnati Pops, under the direction of John Morris Russell, be a stirring, gorgeous backdrop for the clarity of Cash’s vocal work. Sentimental? Absolutely. But by playing to the scholarly strengths of the performers, this rendition yields a quiet authority that underscores everything that generations (especially generations of Kentuckians) have embraced about the song.
But there is so much more to American Originals, including the delicate, lullaby-like reading of Slumber My Darling by O’Donovan, which reaffirms her reputation as heir apparent to the Americana throne seemingly vacated in recent years by Alison Krauss. And Flemons has a field day when the orchestral pageantry of Ring, Ring the Banjo pares down into the rugged intimacy of banjo and bones. A pair of Cincinnati favorites, Over the Rhine (in a warm but brittle reading of Hard Times Come Again No More) and the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars (in a Copeland-like revision of Amazing Grace with O’Donovan), round out the bill, along with a suitably militaristic arrangement of The Battle of Freedom, which the Cincinnati Pops takes on without the guests.
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But the show-stealer is Cash, who transports Beautiful Dreamer straight to the heavens with the sumptuous orchestral support. What results is music both timeless and wondrous, a snapshot of an American ideal that has grown only more lustrous with age.