When was the last time a largely old-time music album made a year-end Top Ten list at such prestigious publications as The New Yorker and the UK’s The Guardian? It’s likely safe to say “Never.” The critical acclaim lavished on Jake Blount’s May 2020 release Spider Taleswould be the envy of a debut album in any genre. (Blount previously released an EP and a couple of band projects, but this is the first full-scale album under his name.) How did this one rise from the sequestered old-time niche to such wide notice?
Blount is an exceptional old-time banjo player, a skill rewarded by winning the 2020 Steve Martin Banjo Prize and first place in banjo at the 2019 Appalachian String Band Music Festival. He’s also a fine fiddler and a good singer. On Spider Taleshe’s joined by other young talents, most notably fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves. The two have great musical rapport, loose but never sloppy, whether playing twin fiddles or banjo and fiddle. There’s terrific energy between Blount and Hargreaves, and that kicks up a polyrhythmic notch when Nic Gareiss joins them on “feet,” as he does on three tracks. He’s a terrific percussionist! Thanks to expert engineering by Joseph DeJarnette, the music barrels across with a very live, in-your-face feeling. It’s simply a great-sounding, well recorded album.
In the album notes, Blount, who is Black, writes of Spider Tales in African folklore and calls the 14 tracks on his album (half with vocals, half wholly instrumental) “Spider Tales in their own right, passed down largely amongst the same people…” Most of the songs and tunes on Spider Tales come from Black sources; three are from North Carolina Cherokee fiddlers Manco Sneed and brothers Osey and Ernest Helton. Blount spotlights the often-overlooked African American and indigenous roots of many fiddle and banjo tunes. He also offers up a ring shout (“Move, Daniel”), a spiritual (“The Angels Done Bowed Down”), and a disparate couple of blues: the vitriolic “Mad Mama’s Blues,” which comes from 1920s “classic blues” vocalist Josie Miles, and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the much-covered Lead Belly variant of “In the Pines.”
For a good-time blast, the rollicking “Rocky Road to Dublin,” with the fiddles of Blount and Hargreaves driven forward by Rachel Eddy on guitar, Jeff Claus on banjo-uke, and Haselden Ciaccio on bass, takes the blue ribbon. For a more astringent (but no less danceable) dose of off-kilter ear candy, the spare-sounding banjo-fiddle duet “English Chicken” is a winner. Of Blount’s vocals, “Brown Skin Baby,” which showcases just him and his fiddle, may be the most engaging. Anyone hoping to play along will find fiddle and banjo tunings in the liner notes. Spider Tales is a musical success from creative young artists bringing fresh perspectives to the old-time tradition.