Thousands of years ago, while Mahavira introduced the concept of nonviolence to the world and the Zhou Dynasty continued its eight-hundred-year reign in China, ancient Greek philosophers were engaged in deep discussion about writing, speech, and the nature of truth. The question as to whether speech or writing served better as a storehouse of memory--which was more natural, more spacious, more stable and incorruptible?--hinged on which more accurately preserves the ideas they convey. Writing concretizes memory, giving it physical and symbolic weight, freezing it in time once in print. Speech, by contrast, allows speakers to recollect more fully and easily than writing. But its recollection is slippery if left uncommitted to writing, its specifics easily forgotten for rhetorical flourishes and general impressions. Both allow us to externalize memory, but speech transfers memory from one mind and into another; only with writing may we return to that record outside of our internal recollection of it. Speech vanishes as it's said; it takes far longer for writing to fade.
Musical recordings have characteristics of both: we take them in aurally, like speech, but like writing, they easily mark particular performances as definitive despite the potential for indications to the contrary. Vernacular folk songs are especially difficult to pin down; distinguishing one song from another is an arduous task--just ask Child or Roud. One might argue that truly definitive folk songs, passed down orally for generations and performed by cultural custom, only exist in the collective memory of those who antedated recording. From there, it follows that performances or arrangements that clash with the oldest available recording corrupt the purity of the 'original' as a result. But it's natural for such traditional songs to melt and bleed into each other as they become more popular, and as their accessibility has expanded, the consistency of the historical, musical record has blurred. Indeed, where the philosophers might have asked, 'what is truth?,' on Who's Been Giving You Corn?, Will Csorba + Cameron Knowler ask, 'what is bluegrass?'
Their record explores the question more than it answers it--fitting given that Csorba and Knowler classify it entirely differently: Csorba calls it 'fake bluegrass'; Knowler, 'fiddle music.' They play music variously considered folk, bluegrass, hillbilly or oldtime, and music which contains elements of all of those styles at that. But though their music is rooted in tradition, Csorba and Knowler aren't reverent. More than anything else, Who's Been Giving You Corn? plays with the American vernacular folk tradition, a tradition concerned with understanding its changes through time past and passing.
On one level, Who's Been Giving You Corn? is a fun record, one you can throw on at a party or blast in your car down country backroads. Many songs are physically inviting, echoing the traditions from which they emerged as songs with a social function; try listening to 'Red Haired Boy/Bill Cheathum' without dancing a jig. But they also engage the listener on a deeper level, following in the tradition of history's great guitar duos--Jansch/Renbourn, Rose/Jones, Elkington/Salsburg--while kneading the meaning of bluegrass and acoustic music and setting it in the oven to bake. Flatpicking and fingerpicking, though popular styles in their own right, rarely coexist on one song in the style, let alone for an entire record. Despite their noticeably different approaches to the guitar--Csorba's a disciple of John Fahey, Knowler spiritual kin to Tony Rice--the two deftly hand off melody, rhythm, and dazzling, jaw-dropping riffs while merging extemporaneously. It's more problem-solving than deliberate creation; if the peg doesn't fit, they make a new hole.
Their willingness to covertly deconstruct the informality of folk idioms in their play serves them well. In Csorba and Knowler's hands, the well-known 'Whiskey Before Breakfast' becomes 'Who's Been Giving You Corn?,' its title both a playful nod to the origins of said whiskey and that of an entirely different fiddle tune. (In fact, perhaps the only main commonality between the Manitoban 'Whiskey' and the Mississippian 'Corn' is that each came about in the Western Hemisphere.) Similarly, Csorba and Knowler's song 'Chicken Pen Hunting' plays on its original title of 'Chinquapin Hunting.'
Perhaps such jollity is fitting. One doesn't usually associate Houston, the Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt, with music inspired by acoustic tradition; apart from its 1960s psych rock scene, which spawned the experimental band Red Krayola and cowboy boogie rock legends ZZ Top, Houston's only notable musical output in this regard is that of Townes Van Zandt and Lower Dens' Jana Hunter--yet all these made their most famous music once their ties with Houston began to weaken. Houston has little of the built history that so easily vivifies older, northern cities, and what parts of it are walkable are only so during those rare, precious times when the heat index dips below 90 degrees. And so Houston, a city that came to fruition in the nineteenth century and began to bloom during the twentieth, one whose chief draws are and have long been oil, ships, space and medicine, is bound up in its own temporality. For all the Houstonians who genuinely love their city, many young'uns are looking to leave, highlighting part of a generation for whom Houston isn't a place to be, but a place to have been. (See an early song of Csorba's entitled "i do not like this city.") Houston is bold enough to put a major public park underneath a major highway, an urban swamp with hurricanes in August and monsoons in May, a city whose nominal dedication to its history is surpassed by its fealty to the oil industry, a place most famously associated with having a problem. Its status as a port city, as a place of historical, spatial control, belies its lack thereof: traffic that ranks with the worst of the country, pensions that threaten to spiral the city into bankruptcy, urban sprawl so vast it spans the area of multiple states. It can take over an hour to leave Houston by car, and as little time for the city to leave you. Its main notoriety exists for its significance to the world around it rather than within.
Who's Been Giving You Corn?, then, serves as a sign of contradiction, though in a more straightforward sense than Kierkegaard's; instead of containing contradictions within it, it merely stands beside them, pointing them out to passersby. In its very title it poses a question, and what answer it gives is neither sweeping nor definitive, but exploratory: like Houston's expansion, it opens possibilities and invites them to the table. 'Reuben's Train' originates from a blues song popularized by bluegrass legends Flatt and Scruggs, but Csorba and Knowler treat the tune as a raga, letting it expand and fold into itself. 'Turnip Toss' is 'Johnny Don't Get Drunk' in a new form, newly buttressed by Csorba's minimalist banjo accompaniment and droning resonator guitar. And so Who's Been Giving You Corn? challenges Houston's seemingly inherent temporality by using musical tradition as its modus operandi. With Houston's rise having been predicated on industries that mark spatial expansion, and as a city whose popular markers routinely denote its status as part of a larger journey--the Rockets, the Astros, the Port of Houston--why engage with the city in a way that challenges its own temporaneity, as Csorba and Knowler have done? And why would their record, so focused on showcasing cultural tradition, mark a place whose own place in history has risen from the ashes of easier times and demarcate a place whose own internal significance largely results from its relationship to other places?
Because it simply has no choice. It may not contain the obvious markers of place that other acoustic records often do--with no songs that explicitly reflect on places significant to its creators, no subtle hints of its location making itself heard on record--but Who's Been Giving You Corn? waggishly nudges the borders of oldtime music a little further past its ancestors. It gathers musical tradition and scatters it to the wind, bringing it to new audiences in new forms. It casually raises questions about the nature of traditional music by seeking to move it forward. And, most of all, Who's Been Giving You Corn? celebrates American music at its core, teasing at the possibilities inherent in the American experimental tradition as it simultaneously preserves and pushes past others, treating its subjects with an easy, wisecracking love and granting us the same fullness of heart and joy of play as we listen. Listen, and listen close.
-- Eli Winter, HTX, 2017
"I finally got around to jamming the full album and I can say that Will Csorba and Cameron Knowler's 'Who's Been Giving You Corn' is a guitar celebration with its head in the clouds and its feet dancing a hole in the dusty dusty ground. this album is all about the interplay between Cameron's flat-picking runs and Will's finger-plucked rags on banjo or guitar, with the occasional shruti box drone here and there. It's got as many twists and turns as the Rio Grande. Also, you have to check out the meandering essay fellow texan picker Eli Winter wrote for the liner notes (in which Will calls the music "fake bluegrass", which reminds me, appropriately, of how John Lurie called The Lounge Lizard's music "fake jazz"). Tip-top recommendation here, folks."
- the modern folk music of america
released August 1, 2017
Will Csorba - guitars, banjo, vocals (on track 6)
Cameron Knowler - guitar
Hannah Underwood - vocals, sruti box (on track 3)