Archived Arts & Entertainment

From the pick of the old time pickin’ litter

By Chris Cooper

Rafe Stefanini: Ladies Fancy

Rafe Stefanini is something of a walking encyclopedia of old-time fiddle and banjo music, having dedicated most of his life to hunting down and learning tunes both famous and obscure from all over this country.

For Ladies Fancy, Stefanini grabbed up an armful of such songs (some bearing the writing credits of players like Roscoe Holcomb, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham) got his family and friends together, and laid some tracks.

Viewed in the light of the more modern bluegrass fiddling and picking I’ve heard over the last few months, Ladies Fancy rings with a soothing and stripped down tone that’s welcome to these ears. There’s a sense of heart and purpose to the project that’s clear in the detailed liner notes and doting accolades Stefanini bestows on his daughter’s musical contributions throughout the album. Sixteen year-old Clelia Stefanini provides guitar and fiddle to 7 of the 19 songs selected for the CD, even adding one original song in “Spill The Whiskey,” written after she’d only been playing for a year. Also joining in are Jim Collier on banjo and mandolin and vocals and Rafe’s wife Nikki Lee on guitar.

Stefanini’s renditions of “Ladies Fancy,” “Dry Gin Rag,” and “Old Dad” call to mind early 20th century barn dances, the smell of hay, and those times before anyone could’ve imagined relying on iPods or mp3’s as sources of musical fulfillment. Back when the only way to hear music was for someone to physically play the music, its function was much more than mere background noise. Music brought families and entire towns together in a big, joyous event. This feeling is prevalent in every note of Ladies Fancy, and in this sense the CD accomplishes more than being a simple collection of old songs — it’s a veritable time machine.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys: Troubled Times

On a similar but different note, Country Records lablemate David Davis and his band recently turned out Troubled Times, and for those who like their grass blue and served up without the fancy trimmings, it will surely sit well.

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Opening with three minutes of classically dark bluegrass storytelling in “The Ballad of Sarah Malone,” a tale of murder and reckoning in the mountains, Davis and company provide some fine playing (especially the banjo and fiddle) and tight-knit harmonies at the song’s finale. Following this is “Chancellorsville,” another epic tale of a Southern soldier confessing at his deathbed that he fired the shot that killed Stonewall Jackson. The tone is set at this point — happy-go-lucky, party-down bluegrass this is not. Troubled Times is the soundtrack for a rainy night alone with a bottle of whiskey, but hey, sometimes that’s just the way it is.

Davis’ mandolin playing and that of the other soloists in his band often reinterpret the vocal melody of the song in lieu of fiery improvisation, and for the course of Troubled Times this approach works wonderfully. Check out “Jake Satterfield” for a fine example of restraint in the playing. Listen for how perfectly the pieces fit. Another mournful tale is spun in “Muddy Water” with eerie sounds provided by the fiddles of Marty Hays and Owen Saunders.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys let their music reflect more of the “blue” shade of bluegrass on this album, and it’s a welcome respite from the occasionally unnecessary filigree found in the music of some newer artists in this style. Bare-boned but sharp as a tack, it’s hard to imagine a better group of pickers with whom to share some troubled times.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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