Joel Harrison has been down the Americana road twice before. In 2003 the guitarist released Free Country, which put a personal spin on tunes by Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and others. The following year, he revisited the concept on So Long 2nd Street, this time delving into a couple of Jimmy Webb favorites and traditional folk numbers like “Shady Grove” and “I’ll Fly Away.” He then moved on to other projects, but now he’s back in the heartland again, taking on the likes of “America the Beautiful,” numbers by Bill Monroe and Bob Wills, and even a Vince Gill-penned tune, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”
Harrison nailed the approach the first two times out: He’s not interested in performing these songs the way they’ve been heard countless times before, but neither is he looking to render them unrecognizable. One common thread that marks all three volumes is the alto saxophone of David Binney, who shares the spotlight with Harrison on the majority of the dozen tracks within. But this time Harrison—who plays dobro and banjo as well as standard and steel guitars—has doubled up on players. Both Brian Blade and Allison Miller are credited as drummers, Jon Cowherd and Uri Caine each contribute pianos and keyboards, and there are two bassists as well, Chris Tordini and Stephan Crump. Add guest drop-ins from Nels Cline and several others, and you’ve got a lively if often busy affair.
It’s also a spirited one: Compared to the rather subdued volume-two take on Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” this version flies, and Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” with a vocal by Alecia Chakour, is a deeply soulful, funky jubilee.