By Pat Mac Swyney

Spencer  Rains - Spotted PonyIf you look up the definition of the Great Plains, it describes the large expanse of predominately flat prairie & steppe grasslands, stretching from southern Canada, across the American Midwest to the Texas-Mexican border; framed by the Mississippi River on the east and by the Rocky Mountains on the west. This broad geography has been home to Native American tribes, European explorers, freed African-American slaves, pioneers and homesteaders and it is from this rich musical landscape that husband-wife duo Tricia Spencer & Howard Rains take their repertoire and inspiration on The Spotted Pony.

On The Spotted Pony, Spencer & Rains draw heavily from old home recordings of local Midwestern fiddlers as well as a significant body of family tunes passed down through both Tricia’s & Howard’s grandfathers. While this project is certainly of great cultural significance in preserving and propagating what Tricia describes as music from the “Midwest Corridor”, the CD and DVD of all 22 tunes is just, flat out, some really great music and it is a genuine delight to watch the sheer joy of their playing together on the accompanying video. The Spotted Pony features Tricia on fiddle, guitar, banjo-ukulele & vocals, and Howard on fiddle, guitar & vocals. While much of this project features the two in tightly woven duets, they are also joined throughout by Missouri-born Old-Time guitarist John Schwab and Minnesota native Brendan Doyle on banjo for a fuller Midwest string band setting.

Howard is well known as a collector and performer of older, pre-contest era Texas fiddle tunes and there are no shortage here from the lush, almost Scandinavian opening fiddle duet Apple Blossoms to a fife march dating from the Civil War to Urban Philo’s Waltz handed down through the Rains family via his great-grandfather Urban Philo Hackney, born in 1882. Also, noteworthy is Howard employing a playful gargle-yodeling vocal technique on Louisiana Traveller; something he replicated from the original 1939 Library of Congress source recording of Texas fiddler Lewis Propps.

Tricia has been playing fiddle and competing in fiddle contests since the age of 8 and from these early winnings, she saved up to buy her own spotted pony, Moonshine. A few of Tricia’s contributions include rare Kansas fiddle tunes, mostly learned from her grandfather Vernon Spencer; including the groovy Hooker’s Hornpipe, a rare, wonderful Kansas setting of Brilliancy, the Dew Drop Waltz and of course, her grandfather’s signature piece, The Spotted Pony which closes the album.

Additional tunes and songs from Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Manitoba and a few further east, round out this recording. A few personal favorites include a Kentucky variant of the song Ida Red, featuring a lovely vocal duet with Tricia providing plucked rhythm accompaniment on banjo-uke, reminiscent of west African mbira “thumb piano” to my ears; Tricia’s exuberant fiddling on Woodchopper’s Reel from the playing of Missouri fiddler Cyril Stinnett and Iowa fiddler Dwight Lamb; and Howard’s leading a particularly rich rendition of Bonaparte’s Retreat from Oklahoma fiddler Tony Thomas.

The fiddles played on The Spotted Pony were inherited from Tricia’s grandfather and Howard’s great-grandfather, respectively. Additionally, both Howard & Tricia are talented artists and designed the entire package and illustrated it with their beautiful, whimsical artwork including Tricia’s pen and ink drawings and Howard’s watercolor portraits of Old-Time musicians.

The Spotted Pony marks the 7th release from David Bragger’s & Rick Hocutt’s Old-Time TIki Parlour and available at the Old Time Tiki Parlour website.

Additional music and art from Tricia Spencer & Howard Rains music are available at their website.

Pat Mac Swyney is a local musician & teacher who currently plays Traditional Jazz with The SWING RIOTS Quirktette; Old Time with The DEAD ROOSTER Memorial String Band; and Balkan with NEVENKA.