Jack Rose, Luck In The Valley
You not only hear him subtly fusing traditions — you revel in how beautifully he's doing it
On December 5, 2009, guitarist Jack Rose died of a heart attack at the age of 38. Rose, who grew up in Virginia and spent the last decade of his life in Philadelphia, was prodigiously talented; at the time of his death, he'd just finished work on what he called his "Dirt Trilogy," recordings made with the Black Twig Pickers and other friends, playfully merging traditional American vernacular music with music from other cultures. This kind of synthesis was nothing new: Rose had successfully fused drone-rock and American folk in his '90s-era band Pelt, and his work in the post-Fahey solo acoustic guitar landscape resulted in one of that genre's all-time peaks, 2005's Kensington Blues.
Rose's music is blissfully free of the hackneyed, emotional pornography that afflicts so much Americana. Its title is olde-tyme slang for St Louis's red-light district. It was also code for picking up a hooker therein. In other words, there's no Garrison Keillor crap here; it's not "folksy" and it's not "down-home." Well, maybe just once it is, with the cheeky little number "When Tailgate Drops, the Bullshit Stops," (a song that shows where the barrelhouse and the front porch meet). Songs from W.C. Handy, Blind Blake and Crumpton Summers are picked up and played around with. And while the gospel tune from that bunch (Summers's "Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime") is swell, it's the originals that truly entrance. "Lick Mountain Ramble" is a fiddle-driven skillet licker that is fun as hell, and you'll swear you've heard the pretty melody from the brief rag "Luck in the Valley" before.
Thanks to assistance from Glenn Jones, Harmonica Dan, the Twig Pickers and Hans Chew, there's a lot going on here: accordion, harmonica, violin, piano and what sounds like a washboard. It is quite nearly a live record, and songs such as "Moon in the Gutter" achieve that pitch-perfect point between spontaneity and composition. Thirty percent of the album consists of first takes, in fact, including the druggy opener "Blues for Percy Danforth," a Delta-stained raga which features the best use of Jew's harp you've heard in many moons. A few minutes in, Rose opens the whole song up with beautiful lines on his lap steel. You not only hear what he's doing — subtly fusing traditions — but you revel in how beautifully he's doing it, and it's a genuine challenge not to get choked up at the loss of such a magnanimous talent.