The folk and gospel artist E.C. Ball drove a school bus and owned a service station, but what he really wanted to do was spread the Good News. With his wife Orna, he wandered Appalachia during the middle of the 20th century, delivering sermons and singing simple songs he had made up: plainspoken hymns of joy and wonder and faith. On their new collaborative albums, the North Carolina multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles and the Chicago guitarist Bill MacKay cover Ball’s lovely ode to the beauty of the natural world, “I See God.” “I see God in everything, on the land and the deep blue sea/In the fields, the meadows, and the pastures green,” they sing together, as MacKay’s guitar and Bowles’ banjo combine into a gentle patter. It’s as simple as a children’s song because the wonder it expresses is so childlike and uninhibited. You could almost read it as an ecological screed: What man could spoil what God has made beautiful?
On a musical level, however, the song locates the sublime in the mundane. It finds something special in what we see around us every day, and that may be fundamentally what folk music is all about. Both Bowles and MacKay have explored this idea on their own albums, which tread a fine line between folk and avant-garde composition. They’re often lumped in with the current American Primitive/guitar soli scene, but their aims transcend those genres. The pair first played together at the Cropped Out Festival in Louisville back in 2018, where they exchanged rough ideas but were still hammering out songs minutes before they took the stage. What might seem like poor preparation was really just a way of maintaining some spontaneity and ensuring there were new things to discover during their performance.
That improvisatory spirit, as well as that sense of something larger between them, carries over to Keys, which contains eight original compositions and two covers. God is in the details on this album: in the low thrum underneath “Dowsing,” in the rising tension of “Truth,” in the subtle wordplay of “Late for Your Funeral Again,” in the halting progress of “Dry Rations I.” They’re both deft and inventive pickers who aren’t terribly concerned with precision or perfection, so there’s a pleasant flow both to their playing and to the sequencing of the album. Keys has all the formality of a front porch jam session on a cool spring night. Because they have such an obvious ease around each other, you often can’t quite distinguish between their instruments—which becomes a small but satisfying pleasure on “Joy Ride,” whose clear melody and jubilant bounce make it sound like a pop song.
Aside from “I See God,” the other cover on Keys is a solemn take on the Sacred Harp standard “Idumea,” and listeners may note its similarities to “Amazing Grace.” It was written by a man named Ananais Davisson, who operated a singing school and published songbooks in the early nineteenth century. Both lush and stark, gentle and forceful, this version proceeds with a spiritual and musical determination, as the banjo and guitar take turns rendering the familiar melody and providing sympathetic flourishes. Like Ball, Davisson seems like a humble man attuned to something far beyond his station, and they share with Bowles and MacKay a belief that a homespun melody or a gently plucked theme or even just two instruments ringing out together might give anyone in earshot a glimpse of God. That’s an awful lot for any album to hold, and at times the music bows under such weight, but Keys never sacrifices its life-size scale nor its humility.
Buy: Rough Trade
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