Stephen Wade – A Storyteller’s Story

Stephen Wade – A Storyteller’s Story (Patuxent Music CD-333)

I first met Stephen Wade in the mid-80s in Washington, DC, after a presentation ceremony for NEA National Heritage Fellowship (the year Earl Scruggs was included). Without knowing a single thing about his musical accomplishments at the time I was impressed immediately by his approachability and the kindness that shown through. Afterward Joe Wilson put me in the know as to Stephen’s musical accomplishments, so my interest was piqued and I sought out his recordings.

This CD appeared in the post one day in early 2020 and that led to a renewed connection with Stephen and several phone conversations about the CD and his upcoming concert (and since post-poned) at Chicago’s famed Old Town School of Folk Music. I was looking forward to an “IRL” interaction and then the cursed pandemic put a stop to everything.

Stephen is most known for his one-man stage show called Banjo Dancing, which since first performed in his native Chicago in 1979, has continued successfully for over 40 years now. It’s a mix of his virtuoso banjo playing with spoken word and singing. This CD, while not that show per se, it is that same sort of mix and gives a glimpse into the breadth and depth of Stephen’s abilities as both a musician and storyteller. I can’t wait to see him in performing again in person and according to Stephen we should have the opportunity here in Chicago in April of 2022.

Overall this project has everything you want from a proper album release, as opposed to blindly streaming music without context as we tend to do these days. It has great photos and an extensive booklet describing Stephen, the project itself and informative annotations for every track. As an inveterate album note reader I found the booklet especially satisfying. I particular love the cover photo of Stephen as a lad which exudes pure youthful joy and exuberance.

Stephen Wade’s music is informed by direct contact with America’s folk music tradition bearers, a rare thing these days it’s safe to say. In additional to being a performer he is a folklorist and collector. In his book The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (University of Illinois Press, 2012) Stephen references several influential folk musicians recorded by the Library of Congress from 1934 to 1942 that informed his music. He sought out these musicians, their communities and relatives in order to gain a better of their lives and how it related to their music.

The recording of this CD and overall “sonic space” it creates is amazing. No aspersions intended, but with so many people doing home studio recording these days it’s difficult to achieve the purity of sound that can be had in a real recording studio with high-end equipment. Beginning with the first track the presence, depth and quality of Stephen’s voice and banjo capture your attention. The album deserves a listen on actual stereo speakers or via a real set of studio grade headphones as opposed to some mini-Bluetooth speaker or by way of an I-pad with earbuds.

Be sure to check out Matt Brown’s fine interview of Stephen and all the other great work on his website.

Personnel on the recording are pillars of folk music playing an intriguing array of instruments and include Zan McLeod – guitar & washboard, Alex Lacquement – bass, Joel Bailes – piano, Tom Paley – fiddle, Marvin Reitz – jug, Doc Hopkins – guitar, Tom Mindte – mandolin and Brennan Ernst – pump organ.

Track List:

  1. Banjo Serenade
  2. Market Square
  3. Another Man Done Gone
  4. Peachbottom Creek/John Henry
  5. The Far-Famed Fairy Tale of Fenella
  6. Station Will Be Changed After a While
  7. Leather Britches with Tom Paley
  8. Railroad Blues
  9. Rhode Island Reel
  10. East Virginia
  11. Hobart Smith on Music/Cumberland Gap
  12. Voice of America Broadcast with Doc Hopkins
  13. Snow Camp
  14. Old Paint
  15. How Ruby Played
  16. Up Jumped the Devil
  17. Tales & Yarns
  18. Wolves Howling
  19. Ray Norstrand’s Introduction at Orchestra Hall
  20. Chicago

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