I needed coffee and what I got was a surprise. Dateline: Sisters, Oregon. September 2009. I was attending the Sisters Folk Festival, pulled over the Cascades from the Willamette Valley by the lure of Danny Schmidt, Antje Duvekot and Rita Hosking. It was hot when I got there at 10 AM, hotter at 12:30 or so, and remembering the old wives' take that hot beverages make for a less hot day, I headed toward the Sisters Coffee Shop for a hot cup of Joe when I heard from a block away the sound of acoustic picking and a smooth bluesy voice which caught my fancy. I hurried, knowing how these little outside 'showcases' started and ended quickly. Whoever he was, he had the nuances of a Mose Allison or Dave Van Ronk but with a voice texture more attuned to folk and pop and a guitar style worthy of a Paul Curreri. I plain had to know who he was.
God only knows what song he was finishing when I approached the 'stage', a chair planted on a piece of sidewalk in a small roadside park between two buildings, but I can tell you what Shaun Cromwell did next. Mumbling a comment about maybe it being time for a little banjo, he switched instruments and launched into The Gristmill, a mix of old-time and modern folk music which I later realized had Cromwell written all over it. With lightly flailing fingers clawing banjo strings, one could have conjured up an Uncle Dave Macon or even a Stringbean (while known mostly as comedian, David "Stringbean" Aken in his serious moments played the banjo with real old-timey flair), but the voice made you not even want to try. While a handful of the crowd of about 40 at the end of the set walked away wondering, most of us made sure we knew Shaun Cromwell before we left, if only to apply a name to the performance. He had earned that much, at the very least.
All he had (has) to sell was (is) his 2007 release, The Turning of Clocks, which is Gristmill-less and chock full of blues, but don't let that hold you back. Those of us who heard him didn't. With slightly slurred voice and a sense of music beyond the vast majority attempting the folk/blues genre, Cromwell floats through twelve outstanding tunes, mostly original, and nails them all. Starting off with the light folk/blues of Three Deaths, he follows with the rag instrumental Death & Taxes Rag and then John Hardy (Was a Desperate Little Man)—Lord, Lord—and straight into the folky Only In Your Head, a song worthy of Paul Curreri (whose Velvet Rut and California albums will have me singing his praises for years to come). A little more rag-influenced folk (Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me, a Mississippi John Hurt tune) leads into the folk-beat original One Step Down Below which gives way to the folk-pop Rhythm In the Tall Grass and then the acoustic slide-bedrocked Hope Grace Finds Us (By and By). More rag follows (Cholla Cactus Rag), then the folky So It Goes, laid back but upbeat, and it all ends with the perfect capper, Elegy For the Misinformed.
Twelve solid tracks sung by a very impressive singer who writes outstanding songs and picks like he was born with an instrument in his hands. It is hard to beat the combination. And no bells or whistles. You get voice, instrument and song. That's it. True, not everyone can pull that off, but Shaun Cromwell did. And does. Big thumbs up.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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