American Dreams Records
Cameron Knowler and Eli Winter are young guitarists barely out of college that bear watching. You may recognize the latter’s name as we did cover his solo album, Unbecoming, last August. The winter holidays of 2018 found Cameron Knowler and Eli Winter touring through an interesting part of Texas best known in songs of country and Americana artists like the late Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, and others. This area is called Trans-Pecos, a land of stark beauty, dotted with ghost towns and small mountain ranges. There’s Marfa, known for its lights and minimalist art, and Terlingua, a tight-knit community of old-timers near the Texas-Mexico border; Alpine, 12,000 strong, is the region’s center but because of song titles Terlingua is probably the most recognized. Yet, Knowler and Winter don’t deliver the Tex-Mex sound that is commonly associated with this region. Instead, each night they played solo and duo sets, interpreting traditional folk songs and showcasing their own, unifying seemingly disparate approaches to the guitar. Anticipation, the first album of gorgeous duets by the two youngster guitarists, is the product of this trip, documenting a musical juncture between desert and city, Chicago and the Southwest, folk traditions and America’s musical avant-garde.
Knowler, a Houstonian by way of Yuma, Arizona, came to bluegrass guitar through an obsession with Norman Blake, teaching himself over years of practice sessions 12 to 16 hours long. Since then, he’s gigged at bluegrass festivals, house shows, hoedowns and honky-tonks, working as a session musician, sideman and teacher, and honing a measured approach to the guitar informed as much by wide-ranging folk cultures as the silence of the desert. Only 23, Winter (named an artist to watch by The Guardian and “generational talent” by NYC Taper) has developed a moving command of the instrument like that of his inspirations Daniel Bachman and Jack Rose, with an energy and confidence honed from extensive touring and performances with Chicago experimental music touchstones (Ryley Walker, Sam Wagster, Tyler Damon).
The bulk of the record, with immaculately clean sound by the way, was composed and recorded in Houston, in a marathon nine-hour session completed on the eve of Winter’s return to Chicago last year. Knowler plays 6-string guitars while Winter does the same, adding the Weissenborn lap steel on some selections. Several selections, including the bookends, are first takes. Album opener “Strawberry Milk,” which emerged fully formed, sets the tone: sweet, inquisitive, daring. It’s not unlike “Parapraxis of a Dragonfly,” which moves from lush harmonies to enigmatic, spiraling progressions and harmonics.
The circumstances of the session forced the two to play outside of their comfort zones, building a new vocabulary of playing. The best example is the freely improvised piece “Sippin’ Amaretto,” which crafts melodies from dissonance, pivoting between power chords and comical, dizzying licks, as if Charlie Christian were running on three hours of sleep. The gentler “Cumberland Application,” is a playful (like two kids playing hopscotch in the driveway) arrangement of folk song “Cumberland Gap.” Western suggestions run throughout: on “And So I Did,” Knowler renders Winter’s bracing Weissenborn tune into a dusky cowboy noir. Later, he complements his sensitive rendition of Michael Chapman’s “Caddo Lake,” after the lake bordering Texas and Louisiana, with rapid contrapuntal runs. The record’s centerpiece is “A White Rose for Mark,” a tribute to late fingerstyle guitarist Mark Fosson, with whom Winter and Knowler played his last concert before his death. Knowler lays the foundation for Winter’s harmonies, simultaneously recalling orchestral voicings and Nigerian highlife; the song, spontaneously composed, opens over three sections and continues to build and blossom creating the effect of the two playing one guitar. Their rendition of Tut Taylor’s “Southern Filibuster,” with its bluesy overtones is rousing and comforting, making for the perfect close.
No doubt, their experiment worked beautifully as they both nod to their forebears and establish their own new identity in the process. This is a fascinating listen.
- Jim Hynes