The guest stars on Jan Bell‘s newest album Dream of the Miner’s Child belie the Brooklyn-based musician’s broad stylistic approach to altfolk and Americana: the list includes two founding members of The Be Good Tanyas (Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton), Phillipa Thompson of the M Shanghai Stringband, and members of her own alt-country band The Maybelles. But the inclusion of both legendary Smithsonian Folkways recording artist Alice Gerrard, and fellow Englishwoman Juliet Russell, who joins in on an old Celtic ballad, are telling, too: Bell is a native Yorkshire lass, a coal-miner’s granddaughter from a region grounded in the same mining trials and tribulations that she covers here, and though she is still young, opening act gigs for Emmylou Harris, Wanda Jackson, Odetta, Steve Earle and The Be Good Tanyas themselves speak eminently to her acceptance as a harbinger and interpreter of the old ways in the new.
Bell’s voice and arrangements here are notable for their ragged tenderness, with weary voices, soft guitar, and fiddle strains that clamber out of the darkness to scratch and paw at the soul. The songs span generations, following the movement of songbook fragments and tunes from the UK to Appalachia, making the title track – a Welch song which found its way into the hands of Ralph Stanely and Doc Watson via the blind Alabama Evangelist Rev. Andrew Jenkins, who re-arranged it in 1925 – the perfect centerpiece; from there, the strains of Jean Ritchie, Watson, and others mix well with the originals and traditional tunes, creating a seamless album of true beauty. To argue over whether this sort of music is country or folk is to miss the point: these haunting acoustic arrangements may be new, but they call to a time before the distinction made sense, when all the world was folkways, and they evoke the best of that history.