Roots Music: Joel Harrison Revisits the Country and Appalachian Songbooks

Joel Harrison has earned a reputation as a forward-thinking musical omnivore. The 20 albums he’s released as leader include explorations of chamber jazz, Indian classical music and the songbook of George Harrison. So it’s a bit of a surprise that on his latest album the guitarist and composer has returned to familiar territory. On Angel Band: Free Country Volume 3 (HighNote Records), he places his wide-ranging talents in the service of country and Appalachian music, genres he’s explored on two previous efforts, in 2000 and 2005.

“Typically, I don’t go back to old projects because I’m wary of repeating myself,” Harrison says by phone, fresh from a mixing session in New York City. “In some way, mentally, I feel like I’m competing with a previous effort.”

But the appeal of these songs was too much for Harrison to resist. Encouraged by his friend Richard Zirinksy, the late co-founder of Adventure Music, Harrison felt enough time had passed to advance the series. He also remembers the first two volumes as being among his most enjoyable projects, as well as the ones that listeners responded to most favorably. Harrison says he knows why. “These old tunes have a real resonance for people — and not just Americans, by the way,” he says, noting that European fans also like the material. “There’s something in the DNA of this literature that feels very universal to people.”

What’s most impressive on Angel Band is the diversity of Harrison’s arrangements, from the easy straightahead swing of “We Shall Rise” to the Appalachian-strings-meets-electric-Miles Davis of “Lost Indian.” Whatever the framework, Harrison’s goal is to extract and expand elements already embedded in a song, including some that may have been lost to history. “It’s important to remember that it’s not like country music was invented by white people,” he says. “I feel like one of the goals of the project is to bring out the African-American roots in that music.”

Though most of the songs are several decades old, one piece of more recent vintage — Vince Gill’s 1995 hit “Go Rest High On That Mountain” — fits Harrison’s bill as a song people will sing in 50 years. “When I decide to arrange a tune, that’s one of the questions I ask myself: Does it feel like it’s timeless? That’s kind of the magic of this music. It’s very simple on the surface, but there’s a ton going on beneath the surface.” —John Frederick Moore

Feature photo credit: Scott Friedlander

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