Al Davis and the Dazzlers, Sun Off Snow
(Snowfall Music BMI, CD)
Old Man Winter already seems a distant daydream, and yet every Vermonter worth his or her maple knows colder months are just around the corner. That doesn’t seem to worry Al Davis. With Sun Off Snow, the six-string journeyman breaks from his regular gig as a Mid-nite Plowboy to carve solo tracks on a debut as fresh as the white season itself.
Long a disciple of first-generation bluegrass, Davis draws licks from Bill Monroe and the iconic Foggy Bottom Boys, but isn’t afraid to pepper the mix with hillbilly boogie. His baker’s dozen of Dazzlers boasts some of the state’s pickin’ and fiddlin’ phenoms, among them Will and Banjo Dan Lindner, David Gusakov, Nate Amos and Gordon Stone.
A Vermont institution since the early ’70s, Banjo Dan and his troupe reciprocate Davis’ years of service by guesting throughout Snow. The eclectic, 12-track release is a prism of Yankee ethos; self-satisfied, cheeky and rooted in tradition. “We’re the husk of the old, we’re the seed of the new” sings Davis on the organ-laden opener, “Stand by Me.” Rife with folksy rhythm and rhyme, this is uncomplicated Americana.
“Real Estate” is a tuneful, authentic twist whose plucky mandolin and endearing narrative exude a rare timelessness. Stone’s pedal steel slides under Gusakov’s fiddle, while Davis dryly laments, “My son he lives in Tampa, and I don’t know what he does.” Imagine a wry Johnny Cash sweetened by barber-shop harmonies.
Flatlanders might balk at the anachronism, but Davis’ rural sound is as legit as an Appalachian coal mine. His beloved Green Mountains have produced a quirky character rich with northern humor.
Davis himself classifies Sun Off Snow as a confluence of “the tributaries of Cajun, gospel, Dixieland, cool jazz and country — which flow into the great American river of music.” Can’t argue with that. The workaday chorus of “Goin’ North” evokes Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, while corny anthems (“Snow Plowin’”) and country yarns (“The Right Fielder Waits”) show an earnestness that’s sorely absent from today’s ironic landscape. Even cracker-barrel melodies such as “Brave Boat” stick to your ribs, by dint of their catchy choruses and easy cadence.
Buried amid the kitsch, however, are meditations that hint at a darker Davis. The brisk “Death Come Down to Danville” is a foot-thumper that marries campfire charisma with Lindner’s breakneck banjo. And don’t miss “Business Cycle,” an uptempo indictment of Wall Street, whose urgent shuffle belies the deep malaise Davis shares with most Americans: “They shed their tailored clothing and they wrap up in the flag, they’re looking for somebody to smile and hold the bag.”
Casting a playful yet suspicious eye on the world outside, Davis proves he’s ready for just about anything.