Somewhere way down in rural Floyd County, Virginia, lies a church whose dramatically-inclined parishioners are staging a dinner theatre production of 1960s shipwreck TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island. Nearby is an old farmhouse with an oak-lined recording studio tucked away inside. Both have tales to tell about isolation. But it’s the studio that The Black Twig Pickers invited Philly-born six and 12-string acoustic guitar wizard Steve Gunn to record Seasonal Hire.
The Twigs and Gunn have crossed paths before. But it wasn’t until the inaugural Hopscotch Festival in North Carolina during 2010 that they got the chance to play together, with Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles convincing Gunn to join them in a contorted rendition of old traditional spiritual “Lonesome Valley”. They then recorded two songs in 2013 for a Thrill Jockey single. Meanwhile, Gunn and Gangloff recorded the album Melodies for a Savage Fix the same year – including the song “Dive for a Pearl”, which is also featured here. However, Seasonal Hire marks the first time Gunn and the full line-up of Twigs have committed a full set of songs straight to tape – no overdubs, no amplification.
The hired Gunn arrives in strong form off the back of his two stunning solo albums, Time Off and Way Out Weather, which betrays his recent interest in more popular brand of classical rock and pop showmanship. But with the Twigs, you sense Gunn is perfectly happy to step back into the shadows and enjoy playing as part of the group, letting his circular guitar riffs just swill in the reverberating pools of sound. His playing may offer fewer surprises than you might expect, but his spirit as a leader is present and the handful of sonic oddities he throws in are a joy to behold.
Nevertheless, the proceedings get off to a decidedly tentative start. This time the five-strong band take a more rounded and spritely attack on Gunn’s “Dive for a Pearl”, which benefits immensely from the harp playing of Isak Howell as he breaks up the quickstep hoe-down dirge. It’s followed by the old-time Charlie Poole and Flatt & Scruggs favourite “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, which sees Gangloff take the lead with some rousing signing. While “Cardinal 51” finds recent Twigs recruit Sally Anne Morgan’s refreshing vocals almost overwhelmed by the cacophony of rustic banjos and fiddling.
By this point, Gunn has done little to warrant his brand name billing. But things take a turn for the weirder on the flip side, with two sprawling tunes filling out the rest of the album, saving it from being merely an above average barn jam session. He picks “Trailways Ramble” from his Time Off album and transforms it from a slinky raga-like workout into a syrupy and morose drone, complete with the enigmatic lyrics: “Driver take me nowhere/ I see you in first light/ Mister trailways ramble/ Its hills are out of sight”.
The album’s obvious high point is its conclusion, the 16-minute title track workout. And here Gunn is clearly in his element as he ditches the confines of traditional song structures and heads out into the unknown with the Twigs in tow. It takes a brave captain in Gunn to coral the noisy band as they develop the open-ended romp into a sumptuous slice of deep-fried psychedelia. But it’s worth the price of admission alone.
If nothing else, Gunn knows when he’s found a good thing in Virginia’s pickers. Bowles, who also plays banjo with mystical Appalachian troublemakers Pelt, recently released his stunning second solo album, Nansemond. For this is the corner of the world that spawned the fastest and most rhythmic of Piedmont bluegrass legends, from the Stanley Brothers to the Carter Family, picking up the tradition from the 17th century English, Scottish and Irish immigrants who settled in the mountains. But despite the passage of time, the Twigs represent the new generation of folk fiends mining the local bluegrass tradition and adapting it to something truly strange and weirdly beautiful – whatever the season.