Music for Pals 2 (Cassell Tunes)
When we met, so he could hand off his new CD, Don Cassell was pacing on a Gay Street sidewalk outside Suttree’s, talking on a cellphone. A cotton dealer whose concerns include some mills in Louisiana, Cassell was negotiating a transcontinental trade between agents in Mexico and Pakistan. It was thousands of bales, a big deal for his small company. But when he was done, he grinned, apologizing as he might if the subject had been a troublesome chihuahua.
It may not be obvious that the folks on the other end of the line in Pakistan knew they were dealing with one of East Tennessee’s finest mandolinists. Last year, “Waltz for Sarah,” a standout cut from his 2003 album, Music Pals, was performed by the Chattanooga Symphony, with the Dismembered Tennesseans, orchestrated by fiddler Fletcher Bright. It’s Don’s tribute to his wife, and maybe on its way to being a standard, Knoxville’s best answer to “Ashokan Farewell.”
Music Pals 2 is his follow-up, his first solo release since the original Music Pals, but solo is an imprecise term for the work of a small convention of musicians: some from Cassell’s bands the Dismembered Tennesseans (featuring Bright and banjoist Doc Cullis, among others); the Tennessee Sheiks (featuring singer Nancy Brennan Strange and guitarist Don Wood, among others); and also former Lonesome Coyotes Maggie Longmire and Steve Horton on vocals, well-known fiddler Danny Gammon, and some younger musicians with followings of their own, like fiddler Bethany Hankins. I got a headache trying to count all the contributors, but there are more than 30 with discernible contributions. (By my count, various songs highlight seven different guitarists.) Between the oldest and youngest is a span of about 60 years.
Though self-published, through Cassell Tunes, it has an especially handsome trifold sleeve, with a blurb from national Dobro master Rob Ickes: “Highly recommended for fans of traditional and progressive bluegrass.” That’s nice, if a little misleading. Of the 14 cuts on the album, only four or five could qualify as bluegrassy, whether traditional or progressive.
The Sheiks’ rendition of the folk song “Wild Bill Jones” is one of them, at least until Dirk Weddington’s rock ’n’ roll tenor sax hijacks it for an unorthodox diversion. “Friar Tut,” by local mandolin legend Tut Taylor, becomes a duel with the record’s only other mandolinist, Cassell’s old friend Doug Barron, of Chattanooga’s Bluegrass Pharoahs. The 1970s bluegrass group Maple on the Hill reunited to record Bill Monroe’s “Tall Pines.”
The CD does highlight the basic tools of bluegrass, but when you add cello, tablas, and accordion, you’ve got some explaining to do. Cassell bows to no genre in this album, which comes across as a mandolinist’s manifesto. Some of it, like the Cassell composition “Homestretch,” has a minor-key Old World flavor, like something Yugoslavian perhaps. A big-party version of Guy Clark’s “South Coast of Texas” is a Cajun-flavored foray into Western swing, with Jay Manneschmidt, who also did some of the recording and mastering, on accordion. With the assistance of Don Wood’s lap steel, Cassell interprets the Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away from Me” as slightly sleazy tropical noir.
There are a few covers of well-known rock-era songs, like “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” from Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and Steve Winwood’s classic “Can’t Find My Way Home,” in a new interpretation by young operatic singer Carrie Niceley.
You can’t sell an album of instrumentals, but this album’s instrumentals may be, like “Waltz for Sarah,” its best remembered. Cassell’s slow, melancholy instrumental “On a Hillside” sounds like a soundtrack for an thoughtful Western about a hanging. “Big D” is his old-time, his tribute to his dad who died in December.
I’m not sure anyone who doesn’t know Cassell’s work would buy any product titled Music Pals 2, but it’s their loss. For the rest of us, it’s a thing to savor.