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Joel Harrison: Free Country

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On Free Country guitarist Joel Harrison mixes well-crafted originals with Americana songs, written by Johnny Cash, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Woody Guthrie. For this bucolic expedition, Harrison recruits a motley crew of adventurers consisting of violinist Rob Thomas, drummers Alison Miller and Dan Weiss, bassists Sean Conly and Stephan Crump, saxophonist David Binney, singers Norah Jones, Jen Chapin and Raz Kennedy and a few other players. With the odd assemblage of players, especially with Binney bringing along a sampler and Harrison playing cassette machine, it’s easy to assume that this CD is some sort of Bill Frisell rip-off. Fortunately Harrison’s distinctive compositional acumen quickly squashes that notion.

Harrison complements Norah Jones’ sultry voice with gorgeous, yawning chords alongside Thomas’ emphatic fiddling and Tony Cedras’ swooning accordion on Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” And the guitarist turns out to be a charismatic singer on “Lonesome Road Blues,” his supple baritone voice crooning the somber lyrics with the conviction of a heartbroken truck driver. His misty-eyed rendering of George Jones’ “Tender Years” tugs on the heartstrings without becoming maudlin, while his splendid take on Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” manages to evoke the serene quietness of the countryside and the disquieting tenor of the U.S. the day after 9/11.

Free Country is hardly stuck in one mode, though. In fact, sometimes it gets as busy as a barnyard hoedown. The boisterous “Hell Broke Loose in Georgia” almost sounds like Downtown cats going below the Mason-Dixon line for summer vacation and mixing it up with some of the locals in Macon, Ga., with Uri Caine’s roadhouse piano rumbling manically atop Harrison and Binney’s brainy, art-rock soundscapes. And on Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” Harrison gives his most rollicking guitar performance on disc, slashing out dissonant rockabilly with gleeful abandonment. But even when Harrison and company’s jazz sensibilities rear their heads in terms of audacious improvisations, they always keep the Appalachian flavor intact.