When ticking off regions renowned for old-time string-band music, one is not likely to mention Teton Valley, Idaho. But Idahoan Ben Winship fondly describes his work as musician-songwriter-producer as taking place “behind the potato curtain” (an export which his home state can name as a claim to fame). With his preferred instrument the mandolin, the multi-instrumentalist and singer has invited the likes of Brittany Haas, Rayna Gellert, Chris Coole, and others to add banjo, fiddle, and other acoustic instruments to collaborate.
While Acorns draws on some traditional standbys (“Shakin Down the Acorns” and a reworking of “Sail Away Ladies”), the accent is on new songs in a rootsy vein, written mostly by Winship himself. The themes of farm and woods and a person’s own mortal end figure strongly in his songwriting. A light-hearted, even humorous approach in the cuts “Turtle Dove,” “One-Eyed Dolly” (about a poor dolly varden reeled in during an Alaskan fishing trip), and Garry Harrison’s “Boys Them Buzzards Are Flying” give the CD a joyful feel.
Winship is perhaps best known for his stellar duo-work with John Lowell touring and recording as Growling Old Men, or his performing with the bluegrassy band Loose Ties in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, Winship’s last solo CD dates back 24 years. He once traveled widely, appearing in his various collaborations at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Vancouver Folk Festival, and on A Prairie Home Companion, to name just a few stages.
What one hears here represents more than geographical crossings, but old-time music infused with bluegrass and folk in ways that take music across old musical borders and well-worn genres. Winship suggests some new ways forward for music with long-ago roots in the hills and hollers of the American South. Known also for his teaching and instructional resources for mandolin, his return to the studio for Acorns allows his music to, in the words of one of his tracks, “live on.”
Winship may be, as Joe Newberry suggests in the CD liner notes, “a master at writing the ‘great old songs’ of the future.” In the meantime, he has crafted a polished yet intimate recording for old fans and new.