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November 28, 2013

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People, Places, Things is a dulcimer crown jewel

BUTCH ROSS STARTED LIFE AT A YOUNG AGE BUT slowly grew older until eventually he was an adult.   Somewhere along the way he decided to become a musician, a traveling folksinger, a road dog criss-crossing the country for well received but low-paying gigs and for a time that was good.  

The glamour of a late-model car parked in front of a cluttered apartment in the once-fashionable part of town may elude the common mortal but to a traveling musician. it is part and parcel to the life and you love it—at least until the invisible hand of fate brings you to a crossroad. For Butch it came in the confluence of three factors: a woman, an instrument and an epiphany about the direction his career was taking.

 One night he went to bed a guitar-slinging folksinger, the next morning he woke up a dulcimer-shredding folksinger. The difference may seem subtle, but it isn’t.  The transformation revitalized a man and his career and brought joy back to a pursuit that had started to seem less than fulfilling.

Butch is many things: a multi-instrumentalist, a singer, an entertainer, but at the heart of it all Butch is a songwriter. His playing is impeccable, his vocal work is pitch-perfect and crystal clear but one listen to his work and it becomes clear that he is a fellow who takes great pride in the way he crafts his songs. Words are not chosen indiscriminately. 

The significance of this must not be underestimated when considering that Butch, already an accomplished performer, set about mastering a new instrument. One presumes that for a time at least songwriting took a backseat to the technical aspects of playing. Butch has said himself that learning the dulcimer brought back to him a kind of giddy enjoyment of music he hadn’t felt since his high school days learning to play guitar.

It was FUN again. 

Eventually, the fun carried him all the way to Ireland where he met famed dulcimer player and instructor Robert Force, who suggested to him that if he were willing to record an album of dulcimer music, Force would produce it and put it on his own label.  

The result was The Moonshiner’s Atlas, a collection of folksongs and a few originals that Butch has dubbed, “The soundtrack to my learning the instrument.” It was followed up with the 2009 instrumental album A Long Way from Shady Grove in which Butch demonstrates his mastery of the instrument, firmly establishing himself as the Jimmy Page of Appalachian dulcimer. 

One thing remained before he could be a full-fledged Jedi: the marriage of his newfound instrumental skills to his considerable song-writing ability. Four years would pass before that dream was finally realized with the release of People, Places,Things on Dec. 15.

People, Places, Things is the culmination of years of practice, hard work and hand-to-the-plow practical experience on the part of Butch Ross and is, for the moment, his crown jewel.  I say “for the moment,” because as good as the album is, designating it his magnum opus would imply that it’s as good as it’s going to get and I don’t think that’s true. Songwriters (good ones) age like wine, picking up subtleties and nuance along the way. 

Between that clumsy metaphor and Butch’s unwavering dedication to perfecting his work, it is a surety that his greatest album has not been released yet but People, Places,Things is an exemplary folk album and he has set the bar very high indeed. It is a terrible shame (for many reasons) that this will be the last season for A Prairie Home Companion.  Were that not the case Butch would inevitably guest star on the show, potentially even earning a regular position there. That’s how good he is, that’s how good this latest album is and if you aren’t familiar with A Prairie Home Companion,  please understand this is meant as high praise.

The album contains 11 tracks, ranging from the whimsical to haunting, most of it is at least semi-autobiographical. The provocatively titled “The Battle of Travis Kilgore” in particular ought to bring a smile to your face, especially if you’re a musician and double-dog especially if you are a musician who came of age in the ’80s. 

Butch’s easygoing style and flowing narrative evoke a lot of familiar imagery from back in the day—and when a songwriter can make you feel a tune is as much about your experience as theirs, that’s pretty powerful stuff.  

To keep up with Butch and his hatchet (an old traditional term for the dulcimer I just made up) or to purchase his music you can contact him through Facebook and at butchross.com

by

November 28, 2013

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