As the year has progressed, it’s become obvious that 2021 is a banner year for folk and bluegrass, and one of the crown jewels in the first half of the year is this collaboration between Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles. The latter doubles down on his already excellent reunion with The Black Twig Pickers to mine sorrow and sun with MacKay, placing him on two of the year’s most essential records in the span of just a couple of weeks. Keys leads heavy towards instrumental fare, with the pair’s guitar and banjo sparring in varied settings, weathering fate-rutted elegies and sun-pocked sprints through the open hills. These moments of sun are particularly infectious, as the pair seem bound to push one another with mischievous winks that conjure up some of the same town square settings that the Twigs make so inviting on Friend’s Piece.
The album is tethered to a pair of covers that seem to act as guideposts for the songs on Keys. Starting off with the reverent “Idumea,” by Ananias Davisson, the duo divine the sorrow from his Kentucky Harmony standout and let the song’s weight drape their own compositions. When MacKay and Bowles do glide into vocal territory on a pair of MacKay penned laments, they find balance with the spiritual sway of E.C. and Orna Ball’s “I See God in Everything,” here just shortened to “I See God.” The old-time shuffle is applied the smirking, yet sorrowful “Late For You Funeral Again.” Though, as they descend into the the darkly shadowed “Truth,” they tie it as a bit of an anchor to the more exploratory pieces, “Dry Rations I & II,” a trio of discord among the more spacious fare. It is, in fact, the balance between the traditional the the transformative that defines the album. The pair nod to the legacy of Appalachian guitar and banjo, but also shine a beacon to where those traditions can lead. The album is as shaded as sunlight on a cracked mountain face — light and dark, resplendent and treacherous, but its a journey worth taking every time.
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