Down the Road I'll Go, by Curt Bouterse (Review)

Down the Road I'll Go, by Curt Bouterse, Eagle's Whistle Music, EWM 1002 (2006)

Though he has been a musician for better than 40 years, Down the Road I'll Go represents the first full album of music in Curt Bouterse's career. Known for some years by cognoscenti as a collaborator of Ry Cooder on the soundtrack to the film The Long Riders (1980), Bouterse has for many years been a laborer in the vineyards of locally performed folk, roots, and world music which can be found in divers localities pretty much all over. His vineyard of choice for most of those years has been in San Diego, California, where Bouterse has for a goodly number of decades not only been something of a fixture on the local folk circuit, but also a crafter of fine fretless banjos derived from original African models (he rightly calls them "banjers", a closer approximation of the original name). He is also an ethnomusicologist (PhD and all), and has performed with a medieval Spanish ensemble, the Alfonso X Memorial Medieval String Band, Santiago de California. His world and music can be explored here:

So to the disc at hand. Down the Road I'll Go has a subtitle: Fretless Old-Time Music. This emendation works on a couple of levels, describing both the absence of frets on the banjos used here, and in the broader sense of the worry-free ease with which these songs are shared. That this overall impression sustains itself even in the face of some of the harm and hurt chronicled in some of these narratives is but one of the many quiet gifts of this offering. The disc is produced by Bouterse, George Winston (!), and Adam Miller, and the crisp, sterling engineering is ably handled by Dan de la Isla. The lean, austere production allows the songs to unfold in their own spaces, and the performances carry the listener along without artifice. Note should likewise be taken of Bouterse's liner notes, simultaneously spare and earnest, and full of head and heart.

The traditional tune opening the disc, "Old-Time Religion", is at the same time familiar and new, with Bouterse's vocals and self-made banjo (as are all such instruments on this disc) leading through familiar verses to new-crafted ones inspired by traditions of the Sacred Harp. It is followed by "Two Little Children", the first of two songs in which Bouterse is joined vocally by his sister, Lee Davis. Ms. Davis has a musical past all her own, having participated some years ago in two albums recorded by the musical collective from upstate New York known as Mud Acres, from which the Traum family and Maria Muldaur would emerge. Here, the two voices weave in and out with the accompanying autoharp in an ethereal reading of this 1910 H.F. Morris gospel standard. It is the first (but not last) transcendent moment on the disc. Next up is the folk standard "Handsome Molly", a work covered by such diverse artists as Mick Jagger and Curt Bouterse. The latter rendition is driven by interplay of voice and banjo, cunningly wrought. The ringing strings of the yang qin, the Chinese version of the hammered dulcimer, propel the traditional "Temperence Reel", and Bouterse follows with the medley "I'm Not Ready/Nicolette". These two tunes begin the exploration of men and women and the distances between, with the first saga a declaration from a man not ready to settle down, and the latter a lament from a fellow done wrong who has apparently not learned from the experience. Both are essayed with a confident smile by Bouterse, who is apparently on comfortable ground here. There's more plowing to be done in this field however, as our next offering is the decidedly non-PC traditional "Scoldin' Wife", where the soothing dulcimer work is a stark offset to the violent lyrics.

"The Ways of the World" is a sprightly banjo tune, featuring some fancy picking in the closing stanzas, and it is followed by one of the highlights of the disc, "Cold Winter's Night". This acappella offering features the voice of Bouterse in an amazing re-working which carries the traditional lament into new territory, with closing verses married to the Sacred Harp melody "Tribulation". This is the emotional and musical centerpiece of Down the Road I'll Go, and gives the first suggestion of Ralph Stanley's "high lonesome" associated with the true Appalachian folk tradition, most particularly in the stark spoken ending of the song. There's more of the same in Bouterse's reading of "Yankee Doodle", which receives a decidedly folk treatment, and a special guest visit from Sally Goodin. The yang qin returns for the quickstep instrumental "Seneca Square Dance", the tune which originally brought Bouterse and Cooder together; one can readily appreciate why in this rendition. The folk-blues standard "I'm So Glad" is next up, a tongue-in-cheek rumination on the occasional bumps in life's road, and Doc Watson's "Your Long Journey" affords another transcendent moment of the "high lonesome", as the acappella voices of Bouterse and Davis stand at the gate between here and there and sing of the crossing over.

The dark traditional tune "Pretty Polly" tells of hard travelin',murder, and payment due, carried on Bouterse's banjo and mournful vocals, and "Shortnin' Bread" gains some new verses courtesy of our narrator, whose mind is on more than the miraculous restorative powers of tasty cooking. The Childe ballad rendered here as "Turkish Enemy" is plaintive in the voice and dulcimer of Bouterse, whose personal history resonates with compassion for those in peril on the sea, his father Matthew John having survived the sinking of the U.S.S. Astoria in the Battle of Iron Bottom Sound in the Solomon Islands in World War II. The title tune, Uncle Dave Macon's "Down the Road I'll Go" is next, and this reading offers hard traveling punctuated by the clarion call of heraldic roosters. Bouterse and Davis team a final time for a glorious acappella reading of the 1835 Southern Harmony hymn, "Parting Friends", sung with the ache of true loss and hope for reunion. The disc closes with a traditional medley, "Angelina Baker/Sally Goodin", which opens with Bouterse wailing away on a Khaen, the Thai 6-reed pentatonic mouth organ. Just as one is convinced that this is an instrumental, Bouterse drops into Angelina Baker, and the rest of the song is a sometimes breathless duet between vocalist and
organist. The song plays out in almost march tempo, and brings a fitting
end to this unexpectedly diverse musical journey.

This, then, is Curt Bouterse, Lee Davis, and Down the Road I'll Go. It is the first offering from this exceptional home-grown griot, but will not be his last. I eagerly await the next chapters in this compelling musical saga.

-- Gilbert Head is a writer and avid music appreciator, amongst many other talents. He was born many moons ago, like Misty, in Chincoteague. Since then, many places called home, and many philosophies scarce dreamed of.

An archive of Gilbert's articles is located here.

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