Nova Scotia's Chris Luedecke is not an old man. On the other hand, neither was native Kentuckian Louis Marshall Jones when he took to calling himself Grandpa. A longtime Grand Ole Opry performer, Grandpa Jones (1913-1998) carried forward the traditions of Appalachian music in more or less comic guise. But if he took on the persona of the rube, he was also a real folksinger in the old-fashioned sense. No revivalist, he grew up with antique ballads and banjo tunes, and he sang them until the end of his days.
Like Jones, Luedecke is first and foremost a banjo player in the old-time -- pre-bluegrass -- style. Unlike Jones, he is not a musical comedian, and he is very much a product of the folk revival. His songs are mostly his own creations. In short, besides nickname and instrument, Luedecke is no junior Grandpa Jones. On the other hand, he is a pretty good Old Man Luedecke.
Though his previous CD won Canada's Juno award as best roots album of 2009, My Hands are on Fire marks my first exposure to Luedecke, a solo artist on the road but here backed by a small, largely acoustic studio ensemble. The well-known American fiddler, mandolinist and vocalist Tim O'Brien appears on all cuts but one. Producer Steve Dawson, who is to be found just about anywhere that roots musicians gather to record north of the border, shows up nearly as often on assorted instruments, along with drummer John Raham and bassist Keith Lowe. The result is a full but uncluttered sound, sensitive to both the traditional and the contemporary sides of Luedecke's songwriting.
Curiously, the most tradition-echoing song is the only one of the 11 cuts he didn't write: the late Willie P. Bennett's terrific "Caney Fork River," which could almost pass for a 19th-century mountain ballad. On the other hand, in common with a more prominent somebody else educated in the old school -- a certain Mr. Dylan -- Luedecke's songs borrow lyrics, images and melodic quotes from genuine folk songs, if only to carry them into the present and place them in a recognizably 21st-century context. Perhaps none so underscores the point as "Woe Betide the Doer of the Deed," a scorching in-the-tradition protest anthem which indicts Wall Street for crimes as close as your nearest headline. "Down the Road" is as accomplished a neo-folk song as I expect to hear this year, with a genuine hook-laden chorus of the sort one is more likely to associate with pop music.
Obviously, I am fond of this CD, and I encourage you to seek it out. I'm confident that you won't be disappointed, and I'm just about as sure that Grandma Jones would have liked it, too.
- Jerome Clark