Ben Sollee purveys a contemporary sensibility in his approach to that most unlikely of instruments: the cello. Naturally then, any new release that’s branded as a look back at the origins of traditional Americana from the perspective of our nation’s early immigrants doesn’t seem, at least at first, to be much of a change in tack as far as Sollee’s usual M.O. And indeed, his new opus, Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native, doesn’t indicate any change in trajectory, its ambitious designs to the contrary.
In truth however, no deviation is necessary. More than simply an artist that advocates for the preservation of those archetypal styles, Sollee has, in one way or another, singularly maintained that musical heritage, one that encompasses folk, bluegrass, country and other seminal sounds. Here however, the traditional trappings are even more apparent than ever before, and if it’s a history lesson of sorts, it’s also one that’s entertaining and insightful.
While the album’s stated intention was to probe the various genres that contributed to the origins of American music, in truth the melodies represented here lean almost wholly towards those of the early Irish, Scottish and English pioneers who left their homes and resettled in Appalachia. The occasional African rhythms imbued in a song such as “Carrie Bell” or the infectious south of the border tempos that drive “Mechanical Advantage” play a secondary role to the archival instrumentation embodied by fiddles, banjos and, of course, Sollee’s vocals and cello, both of which remain at the center of the mix.
Still, within that melange, there’s room for musical diversity as well. While most of the songs might easily be mistaken for archival offerings from way back when, the whimsical musings of “Eva Kelley,” the jaunty delivery of “Two Tone Gal” and the tender leanings of “Pieces of You” betray an ability to lean in different directions while still staying true to the overall intent. Granted, Sollee isn’t always so inclined to push the parameters; on an instrumental like “The Hold Out/Speed Breaker,” the music comes across more like a history lesson and a study in native nuance. By and large however, the songs offer enough enticement to justify repeated listens. It’s rare to find music that’s so simple and yet so suggestive, so sparse in its arrangements and yet so brimming with energy and inspiration. Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native may not have the makings of a masterpiece, but it’s a masterful endeavor regardless.