Martin Simpson and Thomm Jutz, two highly respected guitarists steeped in traditional music, have joined forces to craft an exceptional new album with Nothing But Green Willow: The Songs of Mary Sands and Jane Gentry. This collection features 13 ballads sourced from the works of singers Mary Sands and Jane Gentry, as documented by the prominent English folklorist Cecil Sharp and his assistant Maud Karpeles in their 1917 publication English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.
Sharp and Karpeles embarked on an extensive journey through the Appalachian region, meticulously transcribing over 500 ballads that trace their origins back to England, resonating through the voices and instruments of the mountain residents. Dr. Ted Olson—a professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music programs at East Tennessee State University (ETSU)—provides extensive liner notes that describe the detailed the history and importance of the album.
Jutz, well-known in Nashville as a gifted songwriter and producer, brings an additional layer of expertise with his master’s degree in Appalachian Studies from ETSU, where he delved deep into the study of guitarist Norman Blake for his thesis. It was Jutz’s brainchild to embark on a project inspired by Sharp and Karpeles’ book, but the project truly took shape when he crossed paths with Simpson, the iconic English fingerstyle guitarist.
Together, they handpicked the songs and invited such notable guest artists as Tim O’Brien, Sierra Hull and Justin Moses, and Cara Dillion to join them on this remarkable album. O’Brien adds his considerable vocal and fiddle talents on the song “Edwin in the Lowlands Low.” Bluegrass power couple Hull and Moses were recently awarded annual International Bluegrass Musician Association awards for best mandolin and dobro player, respectively. They join forces on “Geordie” a song that has been covered by many artists, including Norman Blake, Doc Watson, and Tony Rice. Hull and Moses stay true to the song’s traditional origin while uniquely making it their own. Northern Irish singer Cara Dillion was recruited for “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies.” Her pure soprano voice on this cut is simply stunning.
The recording process spanned both sides talents of the Atlantic, with sessions held in the UK and Nashville. During the UK sessions, Jutz played a Martin Road Series DM, while Simpson wielded a fan-fretted Tirga Mhor model by Taran Guitars. In the Nashville studio, Jutz’s 1948 Martin D-18 and Simpson’s Martin Norman Blake signature 000-28 took center stage.
On tracks like “Jacobs Ladder,” Simpson adds some delightful slide guitar embellishments, courtesy of a 1931 National Triolian resonator. Jutz’s flatpicking seamlessly interweaves with Simpson’s fingerstyle playing, creating a harmonious musical backdrop for the array of guest artists featured on the album.
Nothing But Green Willow is not merely a nostalgic tribute to tradition; it breathes fresh life into songs that remain as relevant in today’s world as they did in eras past. This is one of those special albums that stays with you and beckons you to play it again and again.