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Nathan Bowles - A Bottle, A Buckeye

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Artist: Nathan Bowles

Album: A Bottle, A Buckeye

Label: Soft Abuse

Review date: Feb. 22, 2013

Nathan Bowles began playing the banjo rather recently, though you’d never know it from A Bottle, A Buckeye. Bowles’s solo debut sounds like the product of years spent strumming away on a backwoods back porch, with dexterity and confidence that belie that Bowles was a percussionist until his Black Twig Pickers bandmates handed him a banjo and asked him to learn to play. Bowles sounds like an old hand at the clawhammer strumming technique, and the album is knowingly steeped in a traditional sound. For all the looking back, however, A Bottle, A Buckeye isn’t fenced in by what’s come before, and it’s a richer album for it.

The Buckeye in the album’s title is Bowles’ five-string, built by Buckeye Banjo Workshop. The Bottle’s the bourbon that helped to fuel the album’s two days of recording and mixing. The resulting collection of original compositions, covers and traditionals doesn’t sound like something done the quick and dirty way, though. From the joyful ramble of “Charlie’s Pontoon” to the scraping strings of “Beans,” Bowles sounds ever comfortable as A Bottle, A Buckeye surveys the banjo’s old-time roots, recent past, and present. Bowles reworks “Craig Street Hop,” which appeared on Black Twig Pickers’ 2010 Ironto Special, the traditional “Come Back Boys, Let’s Feed the Horses,” and former collaborator Jack Rose’s “Lick Mountain Ramble,” interpreting each with a buoyant warmth that prevails across the album.

Bowles sounds like a natural at spooling out his instrument’s winding melodies and chugging, percolating rhythms, but this fast learner isn’t afraid to go off the curriculum. “Beans,” with its bowed strings and instrument body percussion, takes a detour from the well-traveled rural roads that A Bottle, A Buckeye tends to follow. And while the album’s modern touches and unconventional techniques are few, they’re an important part of the mix of new and old that marks the album.

It’s doubtful that A Bottle, A Buckeye is simply beginner’s luck, and it hopefully won’t be long before Bowles goes back to the studio, bourbon and Buckeye in hand.

By Adam Strohm

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