Music Review: January 2009
Jonny and the Jambusters: It Takes One to Know One
Available at: CD Baby.com
Jonny Clutch is in the mold of those “proverbial diamonds in the rough” who have been discovered plying their talents in remote corners of our large and diverse nation and brought into the limelight for the rest of us to hear and appreciate thanks to the foresight of folklorists like Alan Lomax, the Seeger family, John Hammond and others. He was an up and coming folk and bluegrass “can’t miss kid” who fell off the map in the mid 70s and was only recently “re-discovered” slicing roast beef in a corner deli by Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman. I won’t reveal just how Lohman identified this former star – you’ll have to read his liner notes for the full story. I will say that Clutch’s recent release “It Takes One to Know One,” with his able stable of sidemen known as the Jambusters, available on CD Baby.com and produced by Lohman, is truly a gem and shines brightly through and through.
But as unlikely as Jonny Clutch’s re-discovery in rural Virginia, is the story of Jon Lohman himself. Lohman, from suburban Irvington, New York has a PhD in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania and as the official state folklorist, he works to document, present, and preserve Virginia’s rich cultural folk heritage through a variety of mediums. It turns out that “It Takes One to Know One” is not just the album title but also a clue to what lies inside… on closer inspection it becomes clear that folklorist and producer Lohman IS in fact, Jonny Clutch. Yes, the joke’s on us and I find myself smiling every time Jonny and the Jambusters comes around on my Ipod. This CD is full of surprises and works on several levels.
First and foremost, folklorist Lohman has assembled real-life gems to back up his vocals and harmonica riffs – the Jambusters are actually the Musicians of the Crooked Road who hail from the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. The Jambusters provide the vibrant, authentic and rich picking, fiddling, slapping bass and harmonies behind “Clutch.” I had the pleasure of hearing the Musicians of the Crooked Road tour last summer and was blown away by their sincere and seemingly effortless warm sound typical of Appalachian country bluegrass. For those not familiar, think “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” If that soundtrack is in your collection, so too, should “It Takes One to Know One.” What’s even more amazing is that these diamonds are not entirely out of the rough – they all have day jobs including delivering mail and hand crafting instruments. Led by the technically brilliant picking of Wayne Henderson (reminiscent of Doc Watson) on guitar, Spencer Strickland and Leon Frost on mandolin, Kyle Dean Smith on dobro, banjo, and guitar, Spencer Pennington, Strickland and Gerald Anderson on guitar, Courtney Burroughs, Eddie Bond, and Martha Spencer on fiddle, the Jambusters couldn’t be finer (or as Jonny Clutch says, “finah”).
While not a fomally trained musician, Lohman pulls it off in part because his smooth vocals are more than just credible – they’re good. The choice of material ranges broadly from traditional bluegrass: up tempo classics like High on a Mountain to slow ballads like my favorite, If I Were King (there’d be some changes made) and Merle Haggard’s Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down to very unique covers of Towne Van Zandt’s Ain’t Leavin’ Your Love and Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City. And then there’s a nostalgic flash from the past in a cover of the theme song from 70s sitcom, Movin’ On Up in which the Jeffersons take that deluxe apartment in the sky – not what you’d expect on a typical bluegrass album. Lohman’s harmonica skills are not brilliant but generally modest and tasteful.
Somehow Lohman manages all this with a straight face, (although when performing live he’s having too good a time to keep from grinning), complete with detailed (albeit tongue in cheek) liner notes on the story of Johnny Clutch’s short-lived career and the circumstances of his “re-discovery.” I can imagine how much fun it must have been to record and produce this album and it would still be worth the listen if it were nothing more than a spoof. Through “It Takes One to Know One”, folklorist Lohman has managed to provide good exposure for a group of hard working and talented musicians, and have a great time doing it. As an added bonus, he also discovered a new talent: himself. But in the end, Jonny and the Jambusters soar well above spoof into the rarified air of serious good music.
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