A couple years back, while looking at a slate of bands that might be booked for a festival, a good friend accused me of being fixated on acoustic guitar duos. Two guys. Two guitars. That’s it. I was told that was all I liked.
While his proclamation was a bit tongue in cheek, and wasn’t entirely true, I must admit to a certain fondness for a stripped down acoustic duo. There is something about the intimacy that two musicians can create with their music that I find alluring.
The songs don’t get lost within the dynamic of a larger band and the listener is free to hone his focus on what is happening between just two people. There is some validity to the statement that, sometimes, less is truly more, and the simplicity of what is taking place between the two musicians can be fascinating.
I do believe it takes a certain caliber of musician to make a good duo work. First, both musicians have to have chops. A good chemistry between the partners also helps. Good songs are a must, too. There are certain duos out there that share this mojo; Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Russ Barenberg and Bryan Sutton, and, when both were still alive, the partnerships between Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman and John Cephas and Phil Wiggins were beyond extraordinary. When listening to these duos, I never lament the fact that there are just two musicians on stage. The music they make is perfect as is and wants for nothing.
I am ready to add another duo to this list. Billy Strings and Don Julin, who have just released their latest record, Fiddle Tune X, are a study in contrasts, a cross-generational coupling, with some thirty years separating the close-cropped Strings with the longer haired Julin. The distance between their birthdays is aptly bridged, however, by the affinity they share for the music of the Appalachian coal country.
Both Strings, on guitar, and Julin, on mandolin, are impressive pickers. Strings pulls from his Martin tonal sounds reminiscent of the great Tony Rice, and Julin calls to mind mandolin pickers like the aforementioned Tim O’Brien. As evidenced on Fiddle Tune , they also share great chemistry.
Fiddle Tune X, recorded around a single microphone in a variety of live settings – you can hear audience chatter and even traffic sounds in the recording’s background – is a collection of old standards and original tunes. The record brilliantly captures the magic Strings and Julin create when they play together. Take a listen to “Walk On Boy,” featured on this month’s Trail Mix, which highlights Strings’ bluesy tenor and tasty guitar licks, or the tender tones of Julin’s mandolin on the duo’s rendition of Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.” Strings and Julin also rip through old standards like “Shady Grove,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” “Little Maggie,” and “Sharecropper’s Son” on the record. I have heard each of these songs many, many times by many other bluegrass bands, but Strings and Julin add a new spice to each, mainly because the instrumentation – just guitar and mandolin – is so varied from the banjo driven traditional bluegrass line up.
When Billy Strings and Don Julin flank their condenser microphone, they command my rapt attention. It takes a special musical pairing to captivate me that way. After each listen, I am not left wanting more musicians, just more songs.