Transatlantic duo debuts with exceptional folk opera.
‘Traveler’s Rest’ is the debut album by The Foreign Landers, Tabitha Agnew Benedict and David Benedict. They both were established musicians when they met. A banjo player, she was a rising star in the UK. He was successful as a mandolin player in the U.S. They both won International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Instrumentalist of the Year Momentum Awards. Their story together started with a meeting at the IBMA convention in 2017.
Travelers Rest is the South Carolina town where they’ve made their home together. How they got there and the difficulties they faced along the way is the theme of the album. This is an opera masquerading as a folk/bluegrass album and it is joy, both musically and as a story. Like most operas, there are moments of drama and difficulty. Gratefully all ends well and nobody dies. Which is good for all concerned as The Foreign Landers have produced a great album.
The album starts with ‘Traveler’ written from the perspective of Tabitha’s parents. This a great introduction to the Benedict’s instrumental virtuosity and harmonies. It also exhibits their ability to take both the sounds and sensibility of a genre and renew it. This is how traditions remain vibrant and resists sclerosis. The lyrics capture the mix of joy and pain that parents experience as their children travel on, reminding them that, “But whether near or your far, You’ll always have a place to stay.”
‘Waves’ is truly operatic with images of thunder and storms, doubt and fear. The Benedicts have taken their personal experience of separation, the pandemic and the travails of having a bureaucracy decide one’s fate and written songs that take the specific to the universal. In ‘Should I Go’, they sing every immigrant’s song, “Full of fears, full of questions, Through my tears it’s getting hard to see, To compare, to imagine, What life could be beyond the seas. I don’t know, I don’t know.” The album ends with ‘The Last Song’, about the end we all face. It is an appropriately dramatic finale. But don’t just skip ahead to the conclusion, some of the best is in the middle.
While the libretto tells the story, you go to the opera for the music. And it is the music in ‘Travelers Rest’ that moves the story, providing an emotional depth that make it operatic rather than a collection of songs about remembered moments. The Benedict’s banjo and mandolin take the lead and their friends’ contributions on fiddle, pedal steel, bodhran, and accordion, among others, create a full sound that never drowns out the voices. Self-produced, the Benedicts brought in the right people to match the music to the lyrics. Contributors include Brittany Haas, Karl Smakula, Nick Cooke and Cathal Murphy, among others. This is an exceptional production.
‘Travelers Rest’ is really a piece of musical theatre. And while individually the songs are gems, together they create an exceptional piece this is moving and uplifting. Let’s hope someone takes it to Broadway, the West End or the Grand Ole Opry.