By Jonathan Shifflett

close-to-home275This past summer, mother and daughter singing duo, Val Mindel and Emily Miller, released their second album of early Country music, Close to Home. Mindel and Miller along with Jesse Milnes, fingerpicking extraordinaire and husband to Miller, explore the tight harmonies of the brother duets, the canonic lines of Southern gospel music and the blue note slides of early Bluegrass harmonies paying tribute to the Carter family, Roger Miller, Hank Williams and the Delmore Brothers. Behind each influence and perfectly executed style, however, are poignant memories of their family history, offering the only possible explanation for how such old songs can sound so contemporary and alive.

Both Mindel and her daughter have traveled all over the world performing and educating on early Country harmony singing. Apart from their work together as educators and performers, each has a finger in various Old Time pies. Miller and Milnes play with their Country band the Sweetback Sisters and Mindel plays around the country with different groups such as the California based group, Any Old Time. However, it is in this family setting that the nuances of many years of making music together can be heard.

Track one, I'll Be Rested, is a number taken from one of those impossibly groovy tunes by Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother. Rather than trying to imitate the idiosyncrasies of Graves' guitar playing or brother Uaroy's gravelly voice, mother and daughter sing true to their pure and soothing voices. Milnes provides a third vocal line and fingerstyle guitar that Bruce Jones' weaves together with tasty dobro licks. With Mindel and Miller's sliding cadences and the swung guitar rhythms, this piece plays like stripped-down, vintage bluegrass.

You Tied a Love Knot, a song written by and performed by the Carter family, pays homage to Sara and Maybelle's tight harmonies. Smearing the appoggiaturas to create momentum, the duo's voices float above the chordal accompaniment of Milnes' thumping guitar. It's interesting to note that the original recording had more of a swing, Mother Maybelle opting for a swung strumming pattern over her straight "Carter scratch."

Close to Home was produced by Milnes and engineered by Joe Dejarnette, who also plays bass on several of the tracks. The production is simple and live, congruous with every other element of the album. An warm glow emanates from every piece, inviting you to settle into your easy chair with a mug of something steamy.

Each tune retains the distinct mark of their sources. A composition from the Bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin, Mr. Engineer, exploits a wider vocal harmony, achieving the lonesome, train-whistle sound. My Pillow, shows the younger singer effortlessly crooning Roger Miller's difficult melody, yodeling with grace and exchanging lines with Ryan Hommel's slick electric guitar picking. The rendition of the Delmore Brothers' Remember I Feel Lonesome Too jives like the original and features harmonies with delicate voice crossing, protecting the integrity of the melody but infusing it with their own masterful arranging.

Any lover of early Country singing will appreciate Close to Home for its adherence to the styles we know and love so well - the way brother duets sing consonances so wide you can see right down their throats or how Hank Williams, through a single guttural breath, can bend a phrase like molten iron into the shape of his lovesick heart. Represented on each track are the pure and simple messages performed with virtuosic ease in a language that speaks to our pastoral sensibilities. What we should also appreciate, however, is the accomplishment that has become all too rare among today's commercial recordings: a family's history made manifest in music.

Jonathan Shifflett is a recent graduate of USC's classical guitar program, who has since seen the light and traded the guitar for a banjo. When not tracking down train car murals or searching for hobo hieroglyphics, he enjoys pretending to play the fiddle and thinking about the folk music world at large.