In its best moments, this album by Zoe and Cloyd transcends its influences and becomes something new, an important and fresh direction for American roots music.
Artist: Zoe and Cloyd
Album: Songs of Our Grandfathers
Label: Organic Records
Zoe and Cloyd, an Asheville, North Carolina, duo comprising John Cloyd Miller and Natalya Zoe Weinstein, have chosen for their fifth release to intently explore the musical legacies of their families. Songs of Our Grandfathers takes its generative impulse from the careers of two fiddlers/violinists: Jim Schumate, a North Carolina fiddler most well-known for the work he did with legendary bluegrass pioneers Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, is Miller's grandfather, and David Weinstein, a Jewish Ukrainian-American klezmer violinist, is Weinstein's. The album shifts between these two registers in a mode that one could dub "klezgrass," with six tracks that are more closely related to Schumate and five that are associated with the influence of Weinstein.
The first track, a straight-ahead bluegrass cover of the Flatt and Scruggs classic "We'll Meet Again Sweetheart," immediately establishes the duo's bona fide bluegrass credentials, a claim strengthened both by the fact that Natalya plays the fiddle that Shumate used in the original recording, and by her approach of respectfully playing Schumate's fiddle kickoff and solo pretty much note for note. The backing band of Kevin Kehrberg on bass and Bennett Sullivan on banjo shines on this track, as well as on the rest of the project, with Sullivan's creative playing perhaps most impressively suiting both the bluegrass and klezmer cuts in equal measure.
The album's second track, a Schumate original entitled "Up and At 'Em," marks the addition of klezmer and bluegrass legend Andy Statman to the project. The inclusion of Statman, an accomplished mandolinist and clarinetist, is sonically pleasing and also serves as yet another respectful nod to what we might call the traditions of innovation in which the album is grounded.
Indeed, in the chain that runs between the klezmer and bluegrass of the early to mid-20th century and the klezmer-bluegrass fusion that is represented so well in this project, we find no link more important than Statman. Having him here on the album feels like something akin to a blessing, the presence of a father of the sub-genre on a project about literal grandfathers. Statman plays mandolin and clarinet on four of the album's tracks, and these are particular highlights.
Although this is certainly closer to being a bluegrass record than it is a klezmer record – Zoe and Cloyd are a bluegrass band, after all – the klezmer tracks on the album are just as interesting and sound just as natural as the bluegrass tracks. "Ich Benk Noch Mein Shtetele," or "I Long For My Little Town," is a delightfully lonesome romp with a title that, after translation, sounds as if it could have been written by any number of first-generation bluegrass songwriters. "Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn" is another standout track on the album, and the listener has the added treat of hearing Weinstein sing the original Yiddish lyrics. The fact that these tracks are on the same album as "Rainbow of My Dreams" and "Rocky Road Blues," a couple of particularly enjoyable classic bluegrass tracks, heightens the appeal of all the above.
From the first notes of "We'll Meet Again Sweetheart" to the final fading strains of the klezmer classic "Misirlou," Songs of Our Grandfathers retains a gentle spirit that honors the memories and musical traditions of Jim Schumate and David Weinstein, two traditions that serve as inspiration for fashioning an album's worth of innovative music that stands on its own. In its best moments, this album by Zoe and Cloyd transcends its influences and becomes something new, an important and fresh direction for American roots music.