When you listen to an album and you can’t tell which are originals and which are classic country covers, that’s a good sign. I was pretty sure that the opening track of Innocent Road by Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms was a Klauder original, but it turns out it was a big hit for Brenda Lee back in the 1960s. Likewise the delightful “Jump The Mississippi” which Willms sings lead on, but no, that too is a classic cover, this time of a George Jones song written by Johnny Mathis. No, not that Johnny Mathis, the other one, sometimes known as “Country Johnny” Mathis, who wrote a string of country hits in the ’60s.
And then there’s “C’est Le Moment,” a wonderful Cajun-style country waltz which Willms again sings lead on, which I thought was for sure a cover of a Cajun classic, but turns out its a Klauder song that’s been in the repertoir of the Caleb Klauder Band for some time now. And the title track of this absolutely wonderful album, “Innocent Road,” is a gospel song that surely was sung back in the day by Grandpa Jones or Stringbean at the Grand Ole Opry, but nope, it’s apparently another Klauder song that his Foghorn String Band has been performing for quite a while. Unless it’s so obscure I couldn’t turn up a reference to it online.
Reeb Willms has been singing with Klauder since about 2009 in the Foghorn String Band, one of the most influential string bands not just in Caleb’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, but around the country. And also with the Klauder Band, as she did in this performance of “C’est Le Moment” at Pickathon in 2013.
For this record, Klauder has wisely given Willms second billing and presented us with an album in the style of all those classic country duos, and it’s a winner. Her strong and clear soprano is a perfect foil for Klauder’s foggy light baritone, whether she’s singing harmony as she does on songs like that opener “Coming On Strong” or others like the bluegrass-style “Been On The Rocks,” or Klauder’s “No One Dear But You,” “Just A Little” or that gospel title track; or in full-on duet mode like on their cover of Buck Owens’ “There Goes My Love,” or singing lead as she does on that charming “Jump The Mississippi” or the Vern and Ray bluegrass standard “Montana Cowboy.”
(I may be mistaken on the provenance of some of these songs – some of the covers are pretty obscure!)
Innocent Road in spite of its inclusion of some bluegrass songs like the title track and “Montana Cowboy,” is a traditional country album, with a true honky-tonk spirit. You can hear the difference between this album’s version of “Jump The Mississippi” and the way Willms has been singing it with the Foghorns, which you can see here.
This is one of my favorite albums of 2016 so far. (Kudos to Portland producer extraordinaire Mike Coykendall for capturing the raw intimacy of these performances.) The combination of classic country and original material in a classic vein, with Klauder’s inimitable singing and mandolin style and Willms’s knockout vocals — all of that makes Innocent Road a winner from beginning to end.
(West Sound, 2016)