Robbie Basho: Visions of the Country
Grass-Tops Recording

Christoph Bruhn: Weekends on the Frontier
Grass-Tops Recording

Weekends on the Frontier and Visions of the Country present two complementary examples of Grass-Tops Recording's output, the first a concise set of instrumental guitar picking by Minnesota-based Christoph Bruhn and the second a long-overdue reissue of a modern classic by Robbie Basho (1940-1986). In that regard, the releases are consistent with the label's aim, which is to promote the work of new artists as well as honour great music from the past.

Bruhn's Weekends on the Frontier is a reissue, too, albeit one of recent vintage (originally released in early 2013, its initial run sold out). It's as bare bones as a recording can be, with his eloquent acoustic the only sound featured on the eight instrumentals. A clear line can be drawn connecting Bruhn's fingerpicking style to the so-called American Primitive tradition associated with John Fahey and others, and there's a breezy, quietly joyous quality to the music that's strongly appealing. It's not a one-note recording, either, as ponderous moments also surface amongst those of a more carefree nature.

Titles such as “1957 Industry Rag” and “The Last Dying Breath” single-handedly convey the spirit and style of the music, while in “Arabian Writing on Plaster Walls,” Bruhn deftly manages to fuse Eastern and Western forms in less than two minutes. Each song seems to tell a story: “Fjords of Northern Norway” unspools with a rhythmic insistence that suggests a relaxed, summertime hike through the countryside, whereas the jaunty down-home swing of “Burial Grounds” exudes an appropriately bluesy character. One guesses that were one to engage him in conversation, Bruhn's speech, like his playing, would be unfussy and to-the-point, with little more stated than necessary. Only once, during the seven-minute closer, “Fanfare,” does he stretch out, and the contemplative tone of that explorative reverie proves to be as appealing as anything else on the recording.

Listening to Visions of the Country and its all-encompassing embrace of experience, it's hard not to be reminded of Walt Whitman's “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Song of Myself). By Basho's own description, his 1978 recording “uses the folk ballad style of song and the flowing Raga style of Hindu music to express the feeling and texture of the American Wilderness.” Panoramic in feeling and design, its ten vocal laments and instrumental settings feature not only Basho's six- and twelve-string guitar playing but piano, strings, and even whistling. And though the sparkle of the acoustic guitar is the first sound presented on the recording, many songs feature the startling sound of his full-throated voice.

When Basho sings, it feels as if he's inhaled the natural world and externalized it in vocal form. Never is that more apparent than during the Whitmanesque opener, “Green River Suite,” where Basho proclaims with near-ecstatic fervour his spiritual connection to the valleys, mountains, and rivers of Wyoming; spurred by rapid fingerpicking, the song rushes on with the unstoppable force of the titular river. With his picking and heartfelt singing augmented by strings, “Rocky Mountain Raga” paints a plaintive scene that's both supplicating and soul-stirring, and with his vibrato-heavy voice warbling like a songbird, the rhapsodic “Blue Crystal Fire” proves haunting. Perhaps the most naked vocal performance occurs during “Orphan's Lament” where, supported by a dusty piano only, Basho's quivering voice emotes in a manner reminiscent of Antony Hegarty.

On the instrumental front, the album includes the virtuosic country- and folk-styled fingerpicking settings “Rodeo,” “Elk Dreamer's Lament,” and “Variations on Easter” (the latter based on the works of Leo Kottke) as well as the piano meditation “Leaf in the Wind,” where whistling acts as the song's mournful voice. That a recording of such quality and generosity of spirit was out of print for nearly thirty-five years is mystifying, to say the least. It's important to note, too, that whilst the CD reissue has been released by Grass-Tops Recording, the vinyl version has been made available by Gnome Life Records.

May 2014