Tui – Pretty Little Mister (Hearth Music, 2019)
The shiny sparkly goodness whipped up on the debut recording Pretty Little Mister by the duo called Tui must be akin to the goodness that makes hummingbirds hang around the backdoor, make bad dogs go good and why some fish jump out of the water to kiss the light. Writer’s hyperbole? Perhaps, but only by inches because this is an excellent CD in the resurgence of Americana stringband music. Tight, neat instrumentation, expressive vocals and infectious energy transform Pretty Little Mister into a true delight.
The duo of Tui is fashioned out of singer and musician Jake Blount, one of the few African American banjo players on the stringband scene today and Libby Weitnauer, a sweet voiced fiddler and banjo player from Maryville, Tennessee. This unlikely duo have come to stringband music from entirely different backgrounds.
Mr. Blount found his way beyond funk and metal to American folk through his studies at Hamilton College and delved deep after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. He says, “I remember going into my bedroom and pulling out these old spirituals, digging through the music of black people and slaves to figure out what our coping mechanism was.” Picking up the banjo seemed fitting as it was African slaves in the Chesapeake Bay area were the first to have brought the banjo to the America.
For Ms. Weitnauer the banjo and fiddle are a sort of birthright in Maryville, Tennessee. She says, “I moved to Chicago to get my degree in violin performance and I got homesick and had a reframing of my upbringing. Growing up, you’re supposed to feel shame about growing up in that area. Once I moved away, it became more a feeling of pride, so playing fiddle music was an expression of that.”
But in order to play this kind of music you have to find it first. More than just reclaiming, it’s a kind of unearthing by way of a worldwide roundabout of musicians that share old field recordings, archival material and trades of knowledge of long forgotten songs and musicians. It’s by way of this deep dive into the stringband traditions that the material for Pretty Little Mister emerges.
It’s simply apparent from the get-go that Mr. Blount and Ms. Weitnauer are masterful musicians, but it is the almost elegant interplay of this pair that makes the recording sparkle, especially on instrumental tracks like “Crazy Horse,” “Eighth of January” and “Twin Sisters.”
Equally delightful are tracks like “Sugar Babe” with Mr. Blount’s haunting vocals or the sweet vocals of Ms. Weitnauer on “Went Up on the Mountain” or the swayback slide of her vocals on “Mistreated Mama Blues.”
The duo of Tui offers up first rate performances that come across with a kind of genuine respect and love for the tradition.