Anyone who mistook The Wooks’ frequent preferences for modern slants on string band sounds as a lack of traditional music cred needs to take a listen to the Central Kentucky band’s new “Glory Bound” album. The opening “Union Pacific” soars out of the starting gate with such brisk drive and clean instrumentation and harmonies that the work-song narrative flowing under the music becomes positively luminous.
Part of the magic comes from the tune, penned by non-Wook, but fellow Lexingtonian Eric Cummins. The other is the simple assuredness of The Wooks themselves. The album’s 10 songs don’t remain rooted in purely traditional terrain. They sail through more back-porch friendly grooves (“Little Sandy Queen”), folk-savvy New Grass confessions (“Surface”) and cross-generational roots music mash-ups (“Helechawa,” with its character reference to The Band’s “The Weight”). And that just covers the original works, penned primarily by guitarists C.J. Cain and Arthur Hancock. The “Glory Bound” track listing is rounded out by classics from The Beatles (a patiently paced “Dear Prudence,” which has been a staple of Wooks live shows for a while, propelled by bassist Roddy Puckett), Ryan Adams (a bittersweet take on the Cardinals-era “Let It Ride”) and Steve Earle (a warp speed but still desperate take on“Tom Ames’ Prayer”).
It’s fairly obvious, though, where all of The Wooks’ string music smarts converge on“Glory Bound.” It’s on a tune by Kentucky country realist Tyler Childers, whose“‘Seng” is a simple, giddy celebration of mountain music bliss. It’s the kind of naturally homey parable that has long been a Childers specialty, but it’s also an ideal pick for a cheery Wooks makeover.
Ironically, the song flies on a typically jubilant fiddle lead from Jesse Wells, the one-time Wook who now plays in Childers’ Food Stamps band.
Friday marks the official release of “Glory Bound,” but instead of a record release club show, the Wooks are taking on something a bit larger in terms of a homecoming performance. The band will be one of the featured acts of this weekend’s Moonshiners Ball.
Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan
“I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I’m listening,’ because he was the best banjo player to call me that day.”While there was obvious sarcasm in the remark, the simple truth is Duncan has made a career out of playing alongside the most prestigious artists on the planet, from other banjo greats like Bela Fleck to roles in numerous all-star ensembles (including The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, the “Raising Sand” album and tour with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and Lyle Lovett’s Large Band), as well as studio/performance credits that run from Barbara Streisand to Elvis Costello to hundreds of country artists.
So yes, Duncan could afford to be picky when it came be those he picked with.
But Pikelny, roughly 17 years younger than Duncan, was no wide-eyed rookie. As a longstanding member of the new generation string band Punch Brothers, he has asserted a blend of technical command and musical personality that is wholly distinct. Then again, Duncan was no stranger to it.
Pikelny’s Grammy nominated 2013 album, “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” was a reimagining of fiddler Baker’s 1976 album of Monroe tunes (“Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe”). The focus understandably shifted from fiddle to banjo, but someone still had to echo the immensely progressive and, at-times, jazz-like phrasing that was second nature to Baker. Enter Duncan, who had previously contributed to Pikelny’s “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail” album from 2011.
The Pikelny/Baker concerts have been taking place, intermittently, around the players’ otherwise busy schedules. While tonight’s Burl performance will be their first regional outing as duo, Pikelny performed a solo banjo concert last fall at the Norton Center for the Arts.
Aside from a setlist that ran from artful original works to a giddy cover of Roger Miller’s “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be a Long Time Gone”), Pikelny offered an amusing account at the Norton date of an appearance he made with Duncan on the Grand Ole Opry. He explained how show host and elder banjo pioneer/multi-instrumentalist Roy Clark, fearful of mispronouncing Duncan’s name, accidentally introduced the fiddler as Duncan Renaldo.
Expect similar art and fun tonight at The Burl.