Merl Johnson – Better Man
One or two slight exceptions aside, the words “intense” or “driving” or “cutting” do not readily spring to mind listening to Merl Johnson’s new CD from Patuxent Music. His voice mellow, wistful, and dry, one that has elements of, among others, Mac Wiseman and Roland White, rarely hits a song hard. Moreover, like many musicians who approach their instruments in the same manner as they approach their singing, so does Johnson address his mandolin and fiddle work, both (again, with some exceptions) being offered in a light and precise manner that overflows with taste and clarity.
Those exceptions I keep alluding to are largely confined to his version of Carter Stanley’s “Sweetest Love.” On it, Johnson more or less lets fly and does so to good effect. One might also find some necessary intensity leaping from his cover of Bob Perilla’s murder ballad “The Briley Boys” and from his original instrumental tribute to the mandolin playing of Bill Monroe, “You’ll Find Monroe Written There.” His other original instrumental, “Amandalyn,” also gets up a bit of steam.
Beyond that, the predominant mood of the album is one of gentle nostalgia flowing from track to track. Covers of “All The Good Times Have Past And Gone,” Wiseman’s “Remember Me,” and “That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine” alternate with Bobby Hicks’ “Angel’s Waltz,” the old-time frolic and clawhammer and fiddle support of “Dance Around The Daisies,” and a lovely inspirational tune from Merl’s father Bob, “Power Of Prayer,” all creating for the listener a sense of warmth and relaxation and a recording that persuades you to lean in and focus.
Supporting Johnson well on this enjoyable recording are bassist Stefan Custodi, guitarist Danny Knicely, banjoists Dick Smith and Brennen Ernst, reso-guitarist Jay Starling, fiddlers Tad Marks and Jenny Leigh Obert, and vocalist Tom Mindte. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) BW