When it comes to music I have always found it of value to have my sensibilities challenged, it is part of the fun. I try to have an open mind about all music forms and not be one of the “That ain’t Bluegrass” or “That’s not Folk”, or pick any other genre and fill in the blanks. I also never waste time trying to figure out what genre a particular piece or style belongs to, you can go crazy doing that and it serves no purpose (think Rushad Eggleston or Ryan Cavanaugh here, fantastic stuff, but don’t try to drop it in a particular hole).
Still, being a semi-normal human, I am subject to flaws and one of them is that when a I hear of a new CD by a particular super Banjo player, joined by a bunch of long time jam buddies, I have certain expectations going in. One is that the music will be dominated by said Banjo, and another is that there will be some small opportunities for the other musicians to shine once or twice through the album. Perhaps there will even be another musician in the mix with great chops that will help carry the load. At least that it pretty much what I was thinking when I got the Kripplekrunk album from Rex McGee.
Rex and the boys took me back to school.
If you’ve never heard of Rex, and you likely have not, let me give you some background. Rex comes from a musical family and started out on fiddle at a very young age, picking up the banjo a few years later and becoming a regular at the Galax Fiddlers convention every year since the mid-eighties. Rex maintains both his fiddling and banjo picking at a very high level, having been a touring performer before a family, home, and all the big stuff came into his life. Leaving the road to provide for his family, Rex is now re-emerging on the scene, and boy is he coming out strong. Banjo players reading this may be aware that Rex released a CD back in 2000 titled “24 Creations for Solo Banjo” which became a study guide for many Melodic, Celtic, and Jazz 5 string players. Out of print and unavailable at this time, Rex has been encouraged by many to get the album back up for digital sale. I can share the good news here that Rex has it on his list of things to do and hopes to have it out this year. (I think he just wants to get me off his back.)
But I digress, I said they took me to school. Rex’s cohorts on this CD are the buddies he has been jamming at Galax with for years. This is by no means a ‘backing band’ for Rex’s playing. No, this is a collaboration of the finest kind. Rex did all the arrangements and composing on this offering, but he obviously did it knowing what (and who) he was working with. They did the recording jam style, in a studio, mostly without headphones, and NO overdubbing. All ‘one-takes’ with the minor errors still in there for flavor (I only hear one of these, but I keep looking). This music is all original and fresh, very fresh. Oh and tasteful, did I mention tasteful? This keeps the learning ear very busy through the entire album. It’s not just that the music is new, it is the way the music is played that strikes me as different. Some has a taste of Jazz (Lil’ Krunk Getaway), some leans directly at Celtic (Krunkberry Blossom), some straight up Bluegrass with twists (Poison Vine), and there is even a piece in there that brings to mind dinner music in a very refined restaurant (TNABCB), (yeah, I know that’s weird, but my head is a strange place and no, I don’t understand the title either).
Every musician on this work brings wonderful additions to each piece, not just little featured break here and there. For the discerning ear, listening to the back-up work provides some neat little lessons and big ones too. It seems like nobody is laying back on the entire production. Playing with Rex are John Garris on guitar, Danny Knicely on mandolin, Nate Leath on Fiddle, Dennis Lee on bass, Booby Martin playing Cajon Fiddle on ‘Big Yellow Tent’, Every one of these guys plays at a very high level and each one blew me away with what they offered up. Somehow, someday I HAVE to see these guys play together, preferably around a campfire, but if we can figure a way to get them to come north for some of the festivals like Grey Fox, or Joe Val, then a lot more folks will know what I am talking about here.
When you listen to this CD, I am sure you will hear the banjo loud and clear, but I am not sure you will think “Oh, this is a banjo album”, at least I didn’t. Rex isn’t one to overload a tune with a lot of fancy licks, he has them and uses them where they fit, but Rex seems to focus mostly on what is right for that tune and arrangement, and this includes the other instruments. My perception is that all these musicians are thinking the same thing. When I say ‘fancy licks’, let me tell you Rex has got some that I can’t even figure out when I am watching him do it. To put it another way, I watched Rex sit in at a gig 2 weeks ago. In the audience were Bill Keith and Eric Weisberg, front row. Every once in a while I would glance over and see Eric leaning forward, smiling, and bopping his head. Bill was leaning back in his chair, watching Rex and had this big smile on his face. Impressing those two is no small feat. That same night, Maria Muldaur was in the audience (I know, now you think I am making this up, but if I’m lyin’, I’m Dyin’) and after Rex played a intricate melodic intro to Sailor’s Hornpipe that mimicked a classical harpsichord piece, Maria jumped up and said “WOW!” and began to applaud as he was launching into the Hornpipe. Stupid me, I just sat there with my mouth hanging open. Wow Indeed.
A better description of the contributing musicians can be seen by Clicking Here (scroll down). You can find this Fine CD for purchase by Clicking Here. Rex’s You Tube Channel can be found by Clicking Here. Click Here for the Kripplekrunk ReverbNation channel.
Rex is a creative player with his own style for sure. Here is a video of his tune “A-Minor” from his “24 Creations…” CD. If you are a player, or a good listener, I challenge you to listen to this with your eyes closed and figure out how he gets that percussion beat in there. Then listen again and watch. I bet you didn’t see that coming, did ya? No peeking now.
So hopefully you can see there is some depth and creativity here and I also hope you check into Rex and his bunch even further. It is so nice to hear something with comfortable flavors presented in a new and interesting way. Watch for much more from these guys in coming years, and Rex especially. Just a few weeks ago I was asking myself why I had never heard of this guy before. After having met him and spent some time with him, I still can’t answer that but I can tell you I will be looking for everything he puts out from here on. Check him out.
Here’s one final video and Rex and the crew performing one from the CD …..
Ah Hell, here's another one, I love this tune:
Keep the Beat,