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The Graham Album Review #2138

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The Foreign Landers: Travelers Rest

(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/30/2022)

Over the last twenty years or so, the bluegrass and acoustic scene has been flourishing, thanks to a crop of influential artists who have been moving further beyond the tradition, just as happened in the 1980s when David Grisman, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and others emerged, to form what became known as New Acoustic. Then in the early 2000s, Nickel Creek with innovative mandolinist Chris Thile, and groups like Crooked Still with vocalist Aoife O’Donovan built on their musical eclecticism, and created melodic, yet musically sophisticated original music.

This week we have another stellar example of the delights of the new new acoustic scene with an album by a duo called The Foreign Landers, titled Travelers Rest.

The group has a rather fascinating back-story. David Benedict is a bluegrass mandolinist originally from South Carolina, who rose through the ranks, winning awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Benedict toured with popular bluegrass artist Missy Raines, and then was a key member of the Boston bluegrass group Mile Twelve. He also released a first-rate instrumental album in 2018 called The Golden Angle.

Tabitha Agnew grew up in Northern Ireland, and was part of the British bluegrass band Midnight Skyracer. In 2017, she and Benedict met in a chance encounter at a bluegrass convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, and soon found that had a lot in common musically, and despite their very different geographic backgrounds, they became a couple, with a lot of transatlantic flights to get together. They wed in 2019 at Ms. Agnew’s home in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Their respective musical commitments kept them apart for much of their first year of marriage, and then when the pandemic hit, along with immigration delays, they faced further difficulties. In early 2020, with the pandemic underway, Benedict to traveled to Northern Ireland, apparently after having to turn around after reaching the US, to get back to his wife, and the two isolated in Northern Ireland for six months, facing the difficulties that affected so many musicians at the time – canceled appearances, and unemployment. But they used the time to work on their music, recording at home and released an EP in 2021.

Now they are out with a full length album called Travelers Rest which is the name of a town in South Carolina where the has couple settled. The result is delightful recording that consists of mainly original music, some of it autobiographical, with most of the music created by Mr. and Mrs. Benedict, with Tabitha mainly on the banjo and acoustic guitar, and David mainly on mandolins, but also overdubbed on acoustic bass. They are joined by some notable guests including fiddler Brittany Haas, and Irish American guitarist John Doyle of the band Solas. Ms. Agnew Benedict has the kind of angelic voice and perfect pitch reminiscent of Aoife O’Donovan. David Benedict is an impressive mandolinist who like Chris Thile, takes his instrument well beyond its traditional bluegrass role, often assuming the lead. The way the Benedicts play together provides an indication why they were drawn to each other. Their sound is intimate and yet full of musical subtleties and harmonic complexities that they negotiate with aplomb.

The opening track Traveler shows off the duo’s warmth. Ms. Agnew-Benedict says the lyrics was written from the perspective of her parents in Northern Ireland. <<>>

Waves was inspired in part by the delays in Tabitha’s green card to allow her to come to the US and the couple’s planned home in South Carolina. An interesting textural touch is an atmospheric-sound electric guitar played by Ethan Ballinger. <<>>

Performed a duo with just octave mandolin and banjo is Should I Go which considers the possible misgivings about the future. <<>>

The duo performs a medley of two Irish jigs, Johnny’s Peacock and The Red-Tailed Hawk which feature John Doyle on the guitar among the guests. The second part is wonderfully twisted, with the kind of harmonic complexity that might even be a challenge for a jazz musician. <<>>

Another autobiographical composition is Flying Back to You, a song by David, about crossing the Atlantic on flights twice in a day in order to get back to Tabitha in Northern Ireland just as the pandemic restrictions were coming into place. The form is more traditional style bluegrass. <<>>

Boxes is also inspired by the couple’s transatlantic relationship and marriage. The boxes are the those which hold the mementos of one’s past life when moving on to a new one across the Atlantic. <<>>

The Foreign Landers do an almost melancholy version of the Jimmy Martin bluegrass standard Sunny Side of the Mountain, and the result gives the song a whole new perspective, and I think their version is outstanding. <<>>

The closing track is called The Last Song and it’s a consideration of the search of a better place, perhaps after this life. <<>>

Travelers Rest the new album by the husband wife duo The Foreign Landers is superb example of how what seems like a simple duet of bluegrass instruments can make for a memorable, thoroughly charming album that is also very impressive musically. Both Tabitha and David Benedict are first rate instrumentalists, Tabitha’s vocals are a real standout, and their material is surprisingly sophisticated musically for such an intimate setting.

Our grade for sound quality is “A.” The album was recorded at their home in South Carolina, but then mixed in the UK. The recording captures the warmth of the music, and makes the overdubbed parts seem quite natural.

A couple of people playing traditional acoustic instruments and singing may not seem very innovative, but but when all the ingredients are just right, the results can be very impressive. And that is definitely the case on The Foreign Landers’ Travelers Rest.

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