Canadian bluegrass virtuoso brings songs as well as style.
‘The Old Man and the C Chord’ represents the third solo offering from Chris Cooley, although he has been part of a much wider musical scene over thirty years in the music business, notably as sideman to the wonderful Canadian songwriter David Francey, and also as a member of The Lonesome Ace String Band. With a background in traditional folk, roots and bluegrass music, this album saw him moving more in the direction of the folk troubadours that first drew him to acoustic music.
Negotiating the difficulties that the Covid period brought, these songs are each built around ostensibly simple arrangements – Coole states “I’d record my part, then have one instrument overdub after the fact – pedal steel, clarinet, mandolin – it’s an album of duets recorded alone.”
If that sounds like it might make for an austere listening experience, it really doesn’t, and that is credit both to Coole’s skills as an instrumentalist, and also to the warmth of both his vocal delivery and his songwriting. He wears his obvious abilities lightly, such that there is no showiness in the playing, just the pleasure and satisfaction of hearing music played with elegance and indeed, joy.
The album opens with ‘Upon the Mystery’, ushered in by bird song and softly plucked acoustic guitar and mandolin, as the wonder of nature and life are set against the sometimes overwhelming human drive to try to understand the big questions.
Next up is the beautifully understated clawhammer banjo stylings of ‘Waiting For The Rain’, where Coole further juxtaposes the natural world against the economic realities of the world –
“half the buildings are boarded up, they tried to keep going but had to give up…it’s hard times in this town of mine, the good seeds can’t afford a place to stay, they just dry up and they go away, waiting for the rain”.
Seasoned performer that he is, any soul searching is balanced against a certain wry humour, no more so than on ‘I May Not Be Much, But I’m All That I Think About’, as a jaunty clarinet weaves around a witty lyric that takes a sideways swipe at those who think they are somehow more talented or deserving than is the case. It’s laugh out loud funny at times, as Coole unleashes sly lines one after another.
‘Delia’ is a very cool take on an old song, with some lovely rich electric guitar lines somehow sounding absolutely in step with what is predominantly a very acoustic record.
The title track, meanwhile, has some lovely, slightly rockabilly (or even skiffle) hooks running through it, while self-deprecating humour is once again front and centre, as Coole tries to describe the challenges of writing a great song –
“ain’t it a hell of a way to spend your time, staring at your belly button trying to make a rhyme”.
That may be true, but in ‘The Old Man and the C Chord’, Coole has opened a little window on a variety of small and large truths, with wit and subtlety, some great tunes, and immaculate playing, beautifully recorded. An album to put a smile on your face and a song in your ears, and there will always be room for that in the world.