Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

Here at Hymie’s we’re known to have old fashioned taste at times, even though we were recently singled out as Taylor Swift fans by Gimme Noise. We think, however, there’s a distinction between appreciating the traditions upon which our contemporary music is founded, and being bound to them. We have always had, for instance, a love/hate relationship with Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter whose work is sometimes inspiring but whose neo-classical approach to the art form leaves us feeling stuck. And Lord knows its unpopular when we criticize ol’ sacred cow Jack White, but the truth is a performer doesn’t need to record on expensive 1/4″ tape or own a guitar which belonged to a long-dead bluesman to find their own place in the American musical tradition. In fact, all of the trappings of those retro settings favored by well-heeled traditionalists seem to staunch innovation.

See there are people writing new songs in old formats all over the country, and few musical traditions in America are truly endangered. This was the spirit at the heart of hip hop in the heyday of license-free sampling: using something old to make something new. The people creating those early beats were using turntable because they were the only ‘instruments’ available to them, which was extraordinarily clever. The ‘entry fee’ to American roots music remains strikingly low, for generations people have used what they can afford: a hand-me-down violin, a borrowed guitar or those remarkable inventions the jug and the washboard.

Anyways, we do recommend Taylor Swift’s 1989. although we’d encourage you to check out some of the various albums on our favorite local releases of 2014 list first — it includes a wide variety of styles and genres, and is incidentally not limited to releases which came out on vinyl, because good music is good no matter the format. We’ll always have a sweet tooth for old time American roots music, and that’s why we have so much enjoyed this disc by The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, a duo who leave us with a sense of old radio and acts like the Skillet Lickers or dear ol’ Doc Watson, but who has have presented on their second album a collection of memorable new songs.

yellow bellied


An actual Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is not a Yosemite Sam epithet, but a migratory woodpecker with a red cap and, you guessed it, a tint of yellow to their bellies. They’re protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, ensuring them a safer future than, say, waltzes and polkas, which aren’t exactly burning up the charts or inspiring the tweens these days.

Nikki Grossman and Joe Hart, the duo billed as the Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, perform just those sort of social dance tunes on their second disc, Ocooch Mountain Home. You might think they’re standing off in some timeless rolling hill of Appalachia on the cover of the disc, but the Ocooch Mountains are actually in nearby western Wisconsin, some of the most beautiful land in the midwest and home to the Ark art center, a converted church where they recorded. The sparse arrangements on Ocooch Mountain Home are a warm blend of Appalachian music and midwestern folk roots.

Their “Goodbye Polka,” for instance, won’t have you changing into lederhosen, but it does skip along at a familiar 2/4. The original tune reminds us of the Cactus Blossoms‘ “Traveller’s Paradise” (which we thought of as ‘the goodbye song’ when we used to spin 45s during their Turf Club residency). A hidden track beyond this farewell is a cover of “Summer Breeze” by the fairly obscure Irish group Dr. Strangely Strange, which finds the Sapsuckers sounding as much like a drawling Uncle Tupelo as Old World folkies.

Their original tunes from the Ocooch Mountains are our favorites on the disc, especially the bright and sweet “Get a Good Grip on my Heart,” a duet which features accompaniment by our pal Patty Harison on his faithful accordion, and this fantastic waltz which could well have come from either Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music or Defiance, Ohio.

Here and there Grossman and Hart harmonize as sweet as honey instead of the rougher delivery that puts them not so far from folk punks like Defiance, Ohio. On “Ballad of Will Wing” they sound more like the Anglins than anything contemporary. The variety keeps Ocooch Mountain Home from feeling stale. There’s some great stories in that tune and in “Ghost of the St. Louis Blues,” as well as some lilting dance numbers featuring Grossman’s fiddle and even an American Graffiti-type pop gem in Ronnie Dove’s old hit, “Kiss Away.”

This is what we meant when we wrote earlier that we’re glad there are people writing new songs in old styles, and its the sort of music that has quietly built a healthy following here in the Twin Cities, and their release show is fittingly scheduled for the Minneapolis Eagles Club #34, which has the finest parquet dance floor in town.

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers will release their new album Ocooch Mountain Home this Friday, March 13th, at the Minneapolis Eagles Club #34. Also performing is Jack Klatt, who recorded his upcoming LP at the Ark alongside the Sapsuckers. More details here.


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