This is a phenomenal album. You should get it. End of review.
What? I need to say more?
I’m going to try not to mention Nora Brown’s age. As the late John Cohen wrote in the liner notes, “She sings of experiences way beyond her years.” But her age is only relevant as a novelty. It’s the quality of the music that makes this stunning debut album come alive.
Produced by the legendary Alice Gerrard, Cinnamon Tree was released in October 2019. Brown’s banjo playing is propulsive and trance-inducing, mixing clawhammer and fingerpicking. She pairs her musicianship with a world-weary voice that brings new life to these old songs. And isn’t it refreshing to hear so many songs? More than half of the 11 tracks feature Brown’s singing. Former Uncle Earl member Stephanie Coleman lends her fiddling to a few tracks, and Brown locks into the groove effortlessly, showing her versatility as a banjo player.
Some standouts include “Buck Creek Girls,” “Hills of Mexico,” “Last Chance,” “East Virginia” and “Jay Gould’s Daughter.” Brown’s take on “John Brown’s Dream” is wild and funky. She’s riffing on a low-tuned, resonant banjo, and here’s one thing lacking from the liner notes: information about the banjos and tuning used for each song. Luckily, there are plenty of photos of Brown and her instruments, so I could surmise which one she’s using on this tune. There’s a photo of Brown with Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton where she’s playing a tackhead banjo with a rim so vast and deep that it looks like it will swallow her up.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Brown has gotten around, learning from the likes of John Cohen in upstate New York, Lee Sexton and George Gibson in Kentucky, and others. The creation of this record also took a journey. The record was published by Brooklyn-based Jalopy Records, recorded by Joseph “Joe Bass” DeJarnette at 808A Studio in Floyd, Virginia; mastered in Nashville; lacquer cut by Well Made Music in Cleveland; and manufactured by Third Man Records in Detroit. This music travels.
This is a review of the limited edition LP ($25), which has sold out. According to Brown’s Bandcamp page (norabrown.bandcamp.com), there are still a small number of LPs available at her live performances. The album is also available as a digital download ($10), as well as a “Letter Press Download Package,” which includes the digital download and physical copies of the album artwork and liner notes ($15).
The LP packaging has a homemade quality to it. The outer sleeve is made of rough-hewn recycled cardboard, with an elegant line drawing by Brown on the front and typewritten track listing, sources and credits on the back, along with a black and white photo of Brown. Also included is an eight-page booklet with photos, more in-depth tune information, notes and acknowledgements.
When listening to Cinnamon Tree, you’ll be transported to another realm. Brown’s hypnotic banjo playing and powerful voice draw you in and don’t let go until the final track. Her musicianship has the feel of being honed for many years. It’s easy to forget Brown was only 13 when she recorded this album. And now, I’ve broken my promise. But my first statement remains true: This is a phenomenal album.