Tui Brings Forgotten Songs and Traditions Back to Relevance on 'Pretty Little Mister'
One of the most interesting things about the traditional fiddle and banjo music that is currently labeled as “old-time” is that it's most interesting practitioners are young. Increasingly, young artists are drawn to the music of their ancestors, The songs played on mountainside porches and fellowship halls for decades has found a new life, and a new spark, not only in younger artists seeking a more organic alternative to the increasingly processed and electronic songs they hear on the radio, but often in classically trained musicians. So it is with Tui, the duo made up of multi-instrumentalist Jake Blount and fiddler Libby Weitnauer, who are releasing their debut album Pretty Little Mister, June 28.
For Blount, the spark to explore the music of his ancestors came in reaction to the 2012 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. As Blount dug into old spirituals, he found infatuation with the banjo as a black instrument brought to America by slaves, an idea previously explored to great success by one of Blount's influences, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the solo projects of members Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Hubby Jenkins. For Weitnauer, a move to Chicago and a degree in violin performance left her homesick for her home in Maryville, Tn, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and particularly for the traditional music of her home.
Pretty Little Mister is an album that can be enjoyed on a number of levels, depending on what the listener wants to get from it. On the surface, it's simply an enjoyable forty minutes of old-time music, expertly played and well sung by both Blount and Weitnauer. For those looking for escape, the album is a toe tapper to put on and fall into at the end of a hard day.
For those looking to explore musical history, Pretty Little Mister is a treasure chest of almost priceless value. Eschewing the well-worn songs of the genre, Blount and Weitnauer did a deep dive that rivals even Flemons, arguably black string music's best historian. Pulling from archival and field recordings, many of these songs have been rescued from the scrapheap of history, giving a new generation a peek into names like Tommy Jarrell, Austin Harmon, and Frazier & Patterson.
For those looking for a deeper, more socially conscious message, Pretty Little Mister takes a bit more digging, but it's digging that's worthwhile. The most obvious message is on the album's standout track “Smoke Behind the Clouds.” Originally recorded by Murph Gribble, John Lusk, and Albert York and later given a rework by Roy Acuff, Tui's version is a faithful adaptation with a tiny little twist, a bit of gender bending that has Blount singing not to “Daisy” but “Davy” and inviting not a “pretty little miss” but a “pretty little mister” to “come to Chattanoogie and change your name to mind. It is in no way a political song. There is no message, no protest. But in the simple act of singing a love song between two people who would not be welcomed in traditional bluegrass music, and are not welcomed in some parts of the world today, there's a simple statement that love is universal.
In their choice of artists to cover, Tui not only highlights the black string bands long whitewashed by country and bluegrass “traditionalists” (who themselves are the late comers, relatively speaking), but also of white musicians with close ties to those artists, particularly Dock Boggs, who gets a pair of covers in “Sugar Babe” and “Mistreated Mama Blues.” Boggs was a white banjo player and coal miner who would sneak away from his camp at night to jam with the musicians in the black camps and learn their style.
However you want to take Pretty Little Mister, it's an album worth listening to. There's a historical connection to these songs that is embedded in the DNA, a simple joy in picking with friends that calls out to even the least musical soul. I don't know where Tui plans to go from here, whether it be unearthing more forgotten tunes or forging their own path, but I'm interested to go with them.