Cahalen Morrison & Eli West

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Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
I'll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands
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I started my weekly Radio Boise show in May of 2011. The radio station was brand new, and the library was very small, particularly for anything resembling folk or roots music. As I was casting about for music to play, I heard from a promoter in Seattle who sent me a big stack of CDs. One of these, The Holy Coming Of The Storm, was my introduction to Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, and I played their “Lost Lovin' Gal” on my very first radio broadcast.

There was a lot to love on that first CD. These songs were mostly performed as a duo in American old-timey style with banjos, mandolins, and guitars. And while this sounded like traditional music, most of the compositions were new, mostly written by Morrison. These two were obviously deeply rooted in tradition, but they knew how to expand on those roots in appealing ways.

When their second CD arived, Our Lady Of The Tall Trees, I was floored again. There were originals, again mostly by Morrison, but this time it was the covers that stunned me. Norman Blake's "Church Street Blues" was superb, and their version of "Loretta" remains my favorite Townes Van Zandt cover.

I got a chance to see them live in the summer of 2013, and the music was sensational. Just the two of them on stage, trading a banjo back and forth, picking up other stringed instruments as needed, playing intricate arrangements, and singing in tight harmony.

Which brings us, finally, to what will surely be on my list of Favorite Records of 2014, I'll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands. It's everything I expected - excellent musicianship, strong originals and extraordinary covers, all in a beautifully packaged CD designed by West himself.

The albums starts (and closes) with the original “Fiddlehead Fern,” with a rhythm that drops a beat here, adds a beat there, yet feels very natural. I got caught up in the intricacy of the melody and the interplay of Morrison's banjo and West's guitar, and it took a few listens before I heard the poetic lyrics.

   Downy green, sew a pillow for my mind
   Norway Pine, carve a boat for I can sail
   Fly on back over the valleys down below
   I can't wink without dreaming about you

Another original, “James Is Out,” plays with melody in similar ways, turning the beat around in surprising ways that always make me smile. The song is ostensibly about an escaped mule, but the lyrics are mostly whimsy. The second verse is about how the singer's daddy “goes to the cooper, but he don't get him none down there / Because he cuts and steams and bends 'em like nobody can compare.”

There are covers of songs by The Louvin Brothers and Alice Gerrard and of the gospel tune “Green Pastures,” but my favorite cover is of the Leroy Drumm and Pete Goble tune “Natural Thing To Do” (which I learned from Larry Sparks). This one has Morrison's mandolin and West's guitar aided by the twin fiddles of Brittany Haas (of the band Crooked Still) and Ryan Drickey with Erin Youngberg (of Finnders & Youngberg) on bass. With West singing lead and Morrison adding tenor, it's the harmonies that seal this one for me, especially on the chorus when they croon, “I'll be there to mend the pieces when he breaks your heart in two / Because I love you, it's the natural thing to do.”

Listeners who are already enthralled with old-timey American music will love this record. For those who haven't been struck by this subgenre yet, this duo may be what pulls you onto the bandwagon. I'm on board. Now we just need to find that escaped mule. - Greg Harness

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