One of the best moments of this year’s Folk Alliance Conference was stumbling upon Clarke Wyatt and Betse Ellis swapping fiddle tunes with one of her mentors, the nearly 100-year-old “Fiddle Maker” Violet Hensley, on the marble fringes of the Crown Center Hotel lobby. That spontaneous song circle was folk music encapsulated.
And with River Still Rise, Betse and Clarke have captured the beauty of the exchange. In fact, the CD includes a Hensley-inspired informal two-song suite in which the hand-stretching arpeggios of the traditional “Jericho” is followed by “Fill My Way With Love,” a joyful and heartfelt hymn filled out by a chorus of Brett Hodges (who also contributes guitar on several tunes) and bassist Alex Mallett.
Yet Betse and Clarke’s traditionalism ranges beyond sunny Sunday morning duets – and even beyond the really early, still-dark Sunday mornings of “Take A Drink On Me.” The “traditional” tunes aren’t the ones we’d expect.
For every bracing “Diamond Joe,” there’s a song like “The Two Brothers,” an odd, extended Cain and Abel tale that meanders through a murderous brother’s spiritual demise in almost operatic detail. Songs like “Calico,” with the additional grounding of Mallett’s bass, are intricate, bracing, yet still-breathing rediscoveries. The most familiar favorites, like “Arkansas Traveler” and “Fair and Tender Ladies,” arrive with brand new and occasionally jagged nuances in the arrangements.
Even those familiar with Betse and Clarke’s shows will find something fresh. Local fans who’ve heard Ellis belt out tunes with wild mountain abandon might find her vocals on these songs a touch subdued, but it’s toward a purpose. There’s a layer of warmth — and a wealth of experience — in her voice on these songs.
In Ellis’s own “In This World,” there’s weary and entrancing depth to lines like “You search for the words/and hope that you’re heard.” When she adds “It’s a hard time in this world/to do what’s best/You may mean well/and still make a mess,” it’s clear she isn’t just speaking historically. She’s singing about herself.
Even as it revives music desperately in need of revival, River Still Rise moves beyond the simple rescue of things past. The Wyatt-composed “Stepping on Ghosts” (which could have been a contender for the CD title) is a minimalist tune equally at home at either a bluegrass jam on the courthouse lawn in Ironton, Missouri or sandwiched in a contemporary program between Steven Reich and Philip Glass, the comprehensive bridge between Ozark fiddle tunes and contemporary chamber ensembles delivered in a mere 2:31.
Even the often-told ballad of Little Sadie (here “Requiem for Little Sadie”) gets a Kronos Quartet-like reworking, with Wyatt adding cello and Ellis’s fiddle/violin moving through heartbreaking melodies that were never part of the original.
Musically, Ellis and Wyatt are tireless ambassadors of Missouri’s (especially southern Missouri’s) nearly-forgotten music, and they’ve worked and taught all over of the U.S. to keep that music alive. With those efforts ongoing, River Still Rise still might not be for everybody – but it should be.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.