Liner Note Author: Béla Fleck.
Banjo maestro Tony Trischka's other commitments have kept him from recording for nearly six years: producing Steve Martin's Grammy-nominated Rare Bird Alert, serving as musical director for the PBS documentary Give Me the Banjo, etc. Great Big World features mostly new tunes and a few re-visioned covers. Trischka's core band includes Mike Barnett on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, Michael Daves on guitar and vocals, and Skip Ward on bass, but there are numerous guest appearances. Opener "Say Goodbye" was written for the memory of Kate McGarrigle. Trischka nods to Earl Scruggs' roll style (his first great stylistic influence) and pushes it an evolutionary stop up the chain. The track also includes lead vocals and guitar by Chris Eldridge, and burning fiddle by Barnett. The reading of Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" melds mountain folk and bluegrass with Trischka's expansive use of harmony. He doubles the time with Compton's mandolin, and underscores its lyric poignancy for the new century. Martin lends his clawhammer banjo to "Promontory Point" to excellent effect. Trischka reveals his modal, rhythmic innovations to the banjo style pioneered by Don Reno on the suite-like "Single String Medley," wherein a different string is showcased in each of its five parts. "Belated Wedding Hoedown" is in medley with a comprehensive rearrangement of Stephen Foster's "Angelina Baker," sung by Aoife O'Donovan. Jazz and blues diva Catherine Russell adds a hard-driving gospel vocal and backing chorus to "Joy," which also features drums from Trischka's son Sean, a bumping electric bassline from Oteil Burbridge, and a mean pedal steel from Larry Campbell. Johnny Bond's "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight" combines elements of Ernest Tubb's honky tonk version with the rocking bluegrass reading by the Osborne Brothers, and adds banjo and mandolin layers to make it new. The haunting "Lost" commences as a deep droning blues, then weaves in knotty crossover classical interplay between the banjoist, woodwinds, and a string quartet, then caps it with a gorgeous American Gothic vocal performance from Abigail Washburn. "Wild Bill Hickok" showcases Russ Barenberg and Andy Statman on guitar and mandolin, respectively (marking a reunion with two of Trischka's earliest collaborators); Ramblin' Jack Elliott's woolly vocals; and a spoken word narration by John Goodman! This is Trischka building on the folk-cum-country musical storytelling tradition à la Johnny Horton, though it dates back to the 18th century in North America. Trischka's effortless ability to blend banjo styles and musical genres helped to establish his considerable reputation, but his relentless drive toward discovery and his architectural re-imagination of American music's historical past make Great Big World a standout even in his noteworthy catalog. ~ Thom Jurek