Clifftop was cancelled due to the pandemic in both 2020 and 2021. We all missed it, but Rick and Joanne Davidson did something about it: they assembled 18 good friends and musicians, and put together this very enjoyable two-CD set of fiddle tunes old and new. (Isn’t 18 the number representing “life” in the Kaballah? How incredibly appropriate.) No, you aren’t going to hear an 18-person jam, but combinations of four to six musicians, well recorded, mixed and mastered (thanks to Al Tharp and Joe Bass DeJarnette) at four different sessions in the summer of 2020. Happily, you can clearly hear and distinguish each instrument. Take a second, please, and recognize how hard this is to achieve. Thanks!
Let’s pursue the Clifftop metaphor. Imagine yourself walking around at Clifftop a little after dinnertime. Friends have gathered into jam sessions and are playing happily. You are walking around from one jam to the next, arriving just before they start a tune, and staying through the tune, then moving to the next jam site. You keep doing this until you have heard 20 tunes, no vocals. You have just read a pretty good description of the first CD. Keep going—maybe take a break for a late-night snack and start wandering again. It’s late, and the tunes seem to be at a slower pace, but just as well-played and interesting, and just as you are falling asleep, you hear a haunting “Hunting the Buffalo.” And that is the second CD! This reviewer believes that the metaphor is not only accurate, but what was intended by the Davidsons.
Every tune is identified by minimal but sufficient liner notes. To give an example, “Benton’s Dream” cites, reasonably enough, Benton Flippen as the source. The musicians, and the instruments they are playing are identified: fiddle: Kristen (Harris), Janie (Rothfield); banjo: Nancy (Sluys); guitar: Joanne (Davidson); bass: Rick (Davidson). The tunes are primarily from the Southern Appalachian tradition but include ones from the Midwest such as Willie Ault’s “Indian Corn” and Pete McMahan’s “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe.” Although “Indian Corn” was collected by Garry Harrison and appears in his collection Dear Old Illinois, I suspect most of us learned it from the twin fiddling on the Bigfoot recording. There are also some very excellent recently written tunes, two by Snake Chapman and one each from Ira Bernstein, Garry Harrison, and Janie Rothfield.
It’s hard to pick out favorites, especially since everyone who listens to this CD will have different standout tunes. Some of mine were: John Salyer’s “Billy in the Lowground” (Deb Shebish on fiddle and Thom Worm on banjo); Melvin Wine’s “Edelally” (Chris McGrath on fiddle and Dale Stansberry on banjo); Charlie Wilson’s “Cuttin’ at the Point” (Christen Blanton-Mack on fiddle, Al Tharp on banjo); and Monte Sano Crowder’s “Roaring River” (Kristen Harris and Janie Rothfield on fiddles, Rick Davidson on banjo). The twin fiddling was particularly fun to listen to here, reminding me a little of the best of Highwoods with Walt Koken and Bob Potts. Readers will notice that every one of these is a different combination of lead instruments. In truth, there is not a dud on either CD!
Let us hope that COVID burns itself out and we have many festival seasons down the road! In the meantime, we have this fine two-CD set.