Toolshed + Acorns (two complete and separate albums)
Most musicians have their own kind of tool shed we suppose. Roots musician, recording engineer and in-demand sideman Ben Winship is perhaps titling one of these two albums about his backyard studio in Idaho that he calls The Henhouse. Like most studios, contrary to popular belief, it’s a humble space that’s not loaded with gear and gadgets, the accent on it being a comfortable place work. Obviously the talented Winship feels comfortable there, recording two completely different sounding albums there, and deciding to issue both on the same day. Toolshed is an eclectic guest-studded roots album while Acorns also has plenty of guests but stays closer to the traditional side. Given the breadth of both projects, one can’t helped but be overwhelmed by Winship’s talent. Between the two albums, the guests and multiple instruments, just about every nary aspect and sound of roots music is present.
At the heart of this material is Winship’s songwriting, arranging, and multi-instrumental prowess. Wade into Toolshed and it’s clear from the outset that these are terrific songs. It’s a full band sound, with old-timey, blues, country-rock and jam band. It draws from over two dozen artists on a host of instruments, everything from full brass bands to a table player. There’s the old time jazz feel of “My Name’s Mudd” to a jam band orients “Crossing the Great Divide,” lyrically not like The Band’s song of a similar name, but one with a political bent that he carries into “Bums Luck & Elbow Grease” which has a Tom Waits jazz quality. The opening title track is in the vein of country rock, but we hear the Dixieland influence again in the mandolin-driven “Ragged But Right.” Ivan Neville guests on the bluesy rave-up “What’s the Matter with the Well”, based on Memphis Minnie’s “What’s the Matter With the Mill,” a powerful message song written in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “Always the Mountain” with its echoing choruses of voices, is positively infectious in a singalong way. The tuba- driven “Tamp ‘Em Up Solid” is a marvelous stomper.
Acorns leans more toward the casual enjoyment of friends jamming in traditional mode live. Winship sources instrumental pieces from American string band traditions and writes in the old timey style favored by Tim O’Brien, whose sister Mollie O’Brien appears on both albums. Nine of the 14 have Ben’s vocals while the others are instrumental, all featuring some combination of the major bluegrass instruments of banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle and upright bass. On both albums, Winship provides brief descriptions on the inspiration for each song. The standout tune on Acorns is “Turtle Dove” where Winship plays mandola and guitar accompanied by the thrilling three-part harmonies of O’Brien, West, and Coole. The easy going nature of the record owes to hours of impromptu jam sessions at music camps across the U.S. where Winship teaches.
Included in these two projects besides Neville are bluegrass legends Joe Newberry, Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters, Grammy-winning fingerstyle guitarist Mike Dowling, John Magnie from The Sududes, Rich Brotherton (Robert Earl Keen) and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, all of whom appear on Toolshed. Those on Acorns are well accustomed to late-night jam sessions and picking gatherings. They include Canadians Pharis Romero and Chris Coole, Northwest guitarist Forrest Gibson and fiddler Scotty Meyer and Rayna Gilbert. Both albums have these folks gracing them – Brittany Hass, Eli West and Mollie O’Brien. There are plenty more too.
Originally begun as one giant recording project, Winship quickly learned it was best to divide them into two camps. We are the beneficiaries.
- Jim Hynes