OF MY NATIVE LAND /
~Jesse Ashlock, Music Editor, epitonic.com
Arranger and musician Conrad Praetzel calls his label Paleo Music, which should give you a hint about his musical inclinations. Look over his discography, which includes titles like Between Past and Present and Myths and Memories, and the pattern becomes clearer still. Praetzel, a former archeologist, is obsessed with music's past and its relationship to cultural identity. But rather than simply lovingly recreate the sounds that fascinate him as some musical nostalgists elect to do, Praetzel reinvents ethnic and traditional music by casting it in bold new settings. In his own unique way, he is documenting the way the world seems to keep growing smaller culturally, even as its population continues to skyrocket.
With his most recent project, Clothesline Revival, Praetzel re-visions and extrapolates from a broad cross-section of classic American regional music, putting his own modern but timeless spin on the honky-tonk of Hank Williams, the bluegrass of Bill Monroe, the folk blues of Leadbelly, numerous traditional spirituals and folksongs, field recordings, and other aural artifacts of old-time Americana. He shows amazing talent both as an arranger and a historian with his adaptations of these definitively American sounds, mixing eclectic traditional instrumentation with tasteful atmospherics and electronic beats to create a style he's termed "acid country" or "ambient folk" -- a style that feels powerfully authentic in its effort to look back at the music of the early American 20th century through a decidedly fin de siecle lens.
Praetzel also shows a distinct skill at recruiting talent to realize his vision. Longtime collaborator Robert Powell plays lap and pedal steel, ebow, and bass, baritone, and electric guitars, while a cast of guest musicians lend their talents on drums, fiddle, harmonica, and banjo. Praetzel himself is responsible for the music's beats and atmospherics and plays acoustic guitar, dobro, and mandolin. Also vital to the aesthetic of Clothesline Revival are vocalists Tom Armstrong, an outstanding San Francisco-based honky-tonk crooner, and Wendy Allen, who has lent her breathtaking soprano to The Court and Spark, Paula Frazer, and others. Both have the voices of old souls, exceptional voices that feel quintessentially American and beautifully complement the voices of the album's field recordings, which include Leadbelly, Ora Dell Graham, and an unidentified old train caller barking out the line of the Illinois Central's "Panama Limited" from New Orleans to Chicago.
The album, by the way, is titled Of My Native Land, which on an intuitive level feels appropriate enough, but becomes more so when you learn its story. The title and the album art come from a sculpture garden in Northern Tennessee created during the 1950s by an elderly farmer named E.T. Wickham, who sought to memorialize the American things he held dear by creating life-size concrete figures (some of which have been sadly desecrated since) of the likes of revolutionary patriot Patrick Henry, American Indian leader Tecumseh, and the Kennedy brothers. The inscription on one such monument reads "Of My Native Land."
In an era where musical appropriation and cross-pollination have become the virtual norm, Praetzel and co. have accomplished something truly unprecedented and wonderful -- and something deeply meaningful to anyone with an appreciation for the American folk tradition.