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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Old-Time Duets

Old Time Duets
Anya Hinkle and Jackson Cunningham
Old-Time Duets
I can’t claim anything like impartiality in reviewing this album. Jackson and Anya are friends of mine; Jackson has filled in with my band more than a few times. So if I say it’s a good album, you’ll have no reason to believe me. As it happens, it is a good album, but you’ll have to hear it for yourself to know I’m not lying.

Jackson and Anya had been doing the duet singing thing for a little while before they got picked up by the folks from the Crooked Road, Southwest Virginia’s juggernaut of cultural tourism. Carter Fold, the Floyd Country Store, Olen Gardner’s workshop, and a bucketload of string bands intended to showcase the authentic sound of the Virginia Appalachian mountains. This caused at least some anguish for Jackson: the thing is, he’s not from the Appalachians. He’s from Portland, Oregon. Like me, he cut his teeth as a punk musician, and has the tattoos and the piercing scars to prove it. For him, old-time and bluegrass music was a redemption, not a birthright. So it made him uneasy to be showcased as an example of the sound of the mountains.

I can sympathize with that. I have no idea how often I’ve been photographed, recorded, or videotaped by tourists in pursuit of some glimpse of a “folk culture” that largely doesn’t exist. Once money gets involved, it becomes more about entertainment than preservation. The Crooked Road is a fine example of it. When money came into the Floyd Country Store, it got bright lights, a professional sound system, and retail galore: brand new barrels of candy, a restored antique soda fountain, and a Carhart shop so the cultural tourists can buy authentic country overalls. None of that is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a manufactured thing. When you bring in the antique soda fountain with state grant money, you’re restoring the place to something it never was, but to what the cultural tourists want and expect it to be. And the irony is that it keeps things alive, but changed. The store can pay the bands now, which it never did before. The music hasn’t changed significantly since the money showed up. Our CD sales are up. How can you really complain? But I share Jackson’s discomfort. I’m an Dutch-Irish descended, California-born, Pennsylvania-raised punk turned old-time musician. I don’t make any claims to the contrary, but I’m sure it’s not what the throngs of tourists are thinking when they photograph me on stage. They think they’re getting Appalachian culture. And, in a sense, they are.

But about the CD: when it’s good, it’s very, very good. The duet singing on the slower songs is sublime. “Wild Bill Jones” will never again be the same tune for me. The bluegrass tunes impress me much less. Bluegrass is, by definition, kind of busy, and the vocal harmonies do best with more space around them. So of the 14 tracks on the CD, there are about four that I listen to, and usually skip the rest. But those few tracks are worth the price of admission. When you hear Anya and Jackson do “Moonshiner” a cappella, you won’t worry about where they’re from or whether the sound is authentic enough. You’ll be absorbed by great singing and a great melody, and that’s as much as any music lover can ask.