Album Review

Horses in the Canebreak is the first album by Seattle-based US band the Barn Owls whose line-up comprise of Hanna Traynham, banjo, Kate Lichtenstein, guitar, and Brittany Newell, fiddle.

The fifteen tracks recorded live in concert last summer at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle, VA. The title track is possibly of Kentucky origin and a version by Street Butler recorded in Todd, Kentucky in 1976, can be found in the sound archive of the Digital Library of Appalachia. To me the title evokes an image of forces of nature briefly contained by the requirement for delicate and artful negotiation. And that kind of hints at what I was about to hear.

The first three tracks encapsulate the Barn Owls superb range and control; the recording opens with their version of the Gary Harrison tune Red Prairie Dawn. Here Brittany Newell’s fiddle launches lyrically into that morning sky as Hanna’s banjo and Kate’s guitar ground the melody with understated rhythmic simplicity; clean and uncomplicated. On track two, I Wish My Baby, Brittany’s wiseful fiddle lead combines with the trio’s truly fabulous three-part vocal harmony. And then, while I was still reeling from how good that was, on the third track Brushy Run, the band crank up the tempo and show they can play a good ol’ dance tune just as affectingly as slower and emotive ballads. Hanna’s banjo drives the pacier tune with brushes and ringing bass string that hint at her SW Virginia musical heritage.

This album is a wonderful blend of old time roots with freshness and energy that it was recorded live in one session is a testament to the band’s high caliber musicianship. My own two favorite tracks are the pulsating guitar and banjo tour-de-force Last Chance that offers a nice change of texture on a thoughtfully chosen tracklist, and the lilting and beguiling track Horses in the Canebreak. Yet every track is distinctive and creative; as are Hanna Traynham’s beautiful illustrations and complementing hand lettering that delightfully enhance and reflect the care that has gone into making this album. Take care to buy a copy – you’re in for a treat.

  • Mike Bostock, London
  • FOATMAD (Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance)  Old Time News