Creating new music from old traditions is the hallmark of roots music anywhere in the world. And it’s what Joe K. Walsh does on his debut solo album Borderland. This mandolinist, songwriter and singer has been active in the Americana scene for several years. In addition to being a founding member of the progressive stringband Joy Kills Sorrow in the early 2000s, he has toured with a veritable who’s who in that particular scene, has collaborated with the likes of Darol Anger and the Gibson Brothers, and currently is a faculty member at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, that hotbed of progressive roots music.
You might not be familiar with Walsh’s name, as I wasn’t, but you’re going to recognize the names and the sounds of some of the musicians he surrounds himself with on this record. Starting with fiddler Brittany Haas (another protege and collaborator of Darol Anger’s) and the indispensable Bruce Molsky on various instruments with strings. Walsh sings and plays mandolin, plus the lovely deeper mandola on a couple of songs. He has a supple tenor with just a bit of husk to it when it’s needed, as you’ll hear on the lovely opening track, the gospel-influenced “Red Skies” that Walsh co-wrote with Chris Moore, which features lovely harmony vocals from the band’s superb guitarist Courtney Hartman. The second track is a keeper too, the upbeat bluegrass song “Never More Will Roam,” which Walsh wrote alone. Haas sings backing vocals on this one in addition to some fine fiddle lines, and guest Gabe Hirshfeld plays some rippling banjo fills.
Molsky lends his sturdy baritone pipes to a stirring percussive song “Innisfree” that’s built around a Yeats poem. He and Walsh sing a duet on this one, and its poetic lyrics about “the bee-loud glade” lead into a lovely Celtic-style instrumental of that title co-written with Haas. Her fiddle and Walsh’s mandolin twine around each other throughout this song, with a lovely bass line from Karl Doty. Hartman also sings harmony along with Molsky on a swell gospel-ish cover of Phil Ochs’s “There But For Fortune.”
Borderland is full of excellent ensemble music all around, with solid contributions from all involved and splendid production from Molsky. You can stream it below via Walsh’s Bandcamp account, and learn more at Walsh’s website or on Facebook.
(Skinny Elephant, 2016)