Album review: Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles – ‘Keys’: pull up a pew for bluegrass instrumental delight

The Breakdown

You know what the best thing about Keys is; for all its intimacy, the focus wholly on how the two players and their instruments mesh,a real joy in creation rings through. William Tyler, Black Twig Pickers, Jack Rose fans; please come on over and pull up a pew

BILL MACKAY, the Chicago-based guitarist, improviser of note and all-round scion of six strings, sure loves to enter into a two-way conversation with other artists with reliably beautiful results; witness the brace of albums he’s recorded with the freewheelin’ Ryley Walker, Land Of Plenty and Spiderbeetlebee.

There was 2019’s darker two-hander with cellist Katinka Klein, Stir, a more angular and experimental study for two instruments, at once bold and fragile; oh, others, many others.

But we’re excited as can be that he’s getting together with Appalachian folk and drone fellow traveller Nathan Bowles for Keys, an album we’re told will determinedly push beyond the simple, sterile categorisation, ‘guitar/banjo duets’.

Keys is actually the first time Bill and Nathan have stepped out together on record, although they first met a few years back now; it’s said that after the first night they hung out, it felt as if they’d known each other a while already.

They’ve been sending sketches and ideas back and forth from Bill’s base in the Windy City and Nathan, out there in Durham, North Carolina, and played together a year after meeting at a festival under the grab-bag name Cropped Out, and that night went swingingly, serenely, even; they found a depth, a gestalt, more than the sum of their parts in concert with each other.

A few more shows on and there was an obvious next step: this album, Keys, which the good folks over at Drag City release today. It comprises eight originals and a brace of songs “from other centuries”, and expect more than guitar and banjo in a creative pirouette; there’s organ, both electric and pump; joined voices; even a requinto, a smaller, higher pitched string instrument with Portuguese roots.

Bill and Nathan say Keys is made of “equal parts bluegrass, classical, country, gospel, improv and that ol’ innocence and experience to boot.”

The set was committed to tape in Chicago with the easy, smiling intensity two really adept musicians who both get along famously and complement each other can bring; and a real sensitivity for whatever each song asks in turn, be it nuance, kickin’ back and wheelin’ free, joy, whichever. And you just know it’s gonna be lovely, and gorgeous, and fun, with them both at the wheel.

In the photo booth: Nathan Bowles, left, and Bill MacKay

We start right at the beginning, which isn’t as dumbass as it might sound, once you embrace “Idumea”. It’s a twin lament for their chosen string instruments, and is fully imbued with the old-time America; you can pretty much see the dusty ridges, the simple whitewashed meeting houses; a nation as yet spiritually and agriculturally concerned, introspective, yet to raise its head up and start bouncing across the world stage as a superpower; even, temporarily, an orange one. And Bill and Nathan handle it with stately regard and clear, ringing nuance, connecting with it as a tune handled by countless nameless troubadours who’ve gone into those hills before.

It actually is a song that nearly as old as the country, with the first published version appearing in Ananias Davison‘s songbook Kentucky Harmony in 1816, since when everyone from Gwenifer Raymond to The Watersons to Sufjan has had a go at it; so a proper statement then, of being within, or at least stemming forth from, a strong musical tradition. Actually, it’s noted that the song has its roots in some even older folk droll, so as old as the hills. Bravo intro.

We’re transported then into “Honey Time”, the livin’ easy; and it’s a sunny interplay, Nathan’s banjo running and trilling, melodicism entwining like a climbing plant as the tune builds, the pair in complete understanding of how they can take it outside the pocket, let it spread its wings. It’s got a wholly rural beauty; let it sing out from the porch in a blissful sundown, kick back with a minted drink, know that everything, finally, is good.

“Late For Your Funeral Again” graciously asks for you to take the floor, a vocal number, Bill stepping up to the mic at your personal bluegrass gathering and I think, instrument necessarily dangling from a right hand loosely as he sings “If I can’t walk then I’ll have to crawl / And be late for your funeral again.” It has that wry, delightful humour in shared privation which seems to so permeate the blues and roots tradition, and which commonality we lost somewhere around 1950 or so, headlong bound for modernity; which, shame, when your ills can be sung away so beautifully. Bill and Nathan’s string interplay is basically perfect.

“Dry Rations II” comes before its antecedent in the run of the album, is a more reflective and experimental interplay, evening shadows at its back, almost baroque folk underneath the dust of the road, gradually fraying apart, a short study that’s all feeling; and it plays us into “Joy Ride”, the announcing single, whose accompanying animation is down beyond where yrs truly’s pen runs out of ink. And aptly named, ’tis: for it is a joyous ride through Bill and Nathan’s instrumental chops, strong with understanding, harmony, melody; feeling, atmosphere, all set up on a breaking clap of percussion. It’s a toe-tapper, nope; actually a finger-clicker, with modernity and sass. Yum.

“I See God” pulls back to the simple, old-time religion, and in fact it’s culed from the traditional songbook of E.C. and Orna Ball of Rugby, Virginia, ‘trad.arr.’. It’s got simple wonder and joy in creation, maybe something else we’ve lost as we pitch out some furious froth at username John1337577 on Twitter. They take it as a duet, feeling being all, watching the rolling waves crashing on the shore, the little birds go flying high, and you just know they’re having a ball with this one; you can hear it, that they’re loving this country gospel cracker.

“Dry Rations I” is another atmospheric from out in the parched earth, wiping its brow; the banjo has a japanoiserie, its notes clear and koto-like. The little nuances of the recording space add atmosphere, and that’s becoming a delightfully now thing – the sound of the room. It begins to pick up the slide resonance that might befit an eastern-western, if you like; get that film commissioned, guys. Spare and atmospheric, a winner.

“Dowsing” is languid and slow, the perfect, evocative interplay for a long day; pace not race. Strings squeak and it has an almost medieval folk decorum, progresses through movements of intricate, eye-to-eye rootsy melody.

You could, I think, easily transpose “Truth” into some sort of baroque-psych thing, a little Jimmy Webb, a little Liam Hayes’ Plush; you can hear that arrangement in the its bones. And then it’s perfectly lovely as it is, guitar and banjo thrashing with power; you half-expect feedback. Bill again steps forward to sing, an abstracted parting the theme: “Haunt you with truth / Or captivate by lies / By now you must know / Where my sympathies must lie”. It’s as if song from Red House Painters’ Old Ramon had been pulled in from the burnished autumn forests and introduced to its ancestors – especially that middle break, which nudges dischord. The coda adds another atmosphere, eyes shut, in the flow, a piano pulling out higher.

“The I in Silence” closes Keys as a last dance, people starting to ready for home but eyes still wide; a little paced, singing quietude, a contemplation of what we’ve shared at this come-visiting, moon rising out back.

You know what the best thing about this album is; for all its intimacy, the focus wholly on the interplay of the two players and their instruments, how they mesh and in how many ways, a real joy in creation rings through. The songs within veer from experimentally fragmented to delicious instrumental interplay, homage to the roots of the musics, bluegrass, purer folk, hoedown reels, and all with a little bottled sunshine. It’s a perfect April album, the renewal of spring all around, and Christ knows it’s been a grind. Set your speakers up so you can lie back in this record out by your door in the late afternoon sun with a long drink, and let Bill and Nathan take care of the rest. A beauty.

William Tyler, Black Twig Pickers, Jack Rose fans; please come on over and pull up a pew.

Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles’ Keys is released by Drag City on April 9th, digitally, on CD and on vinyl; order your copy now at the label shop or from your trusted local record store.

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