The soul of the song
by Whit Hill
On a warm night in June, the beautiful Black Crystal Cafe fast becoming one of Ann Arbor's most popular "house concert" listening rooms hosted Bill Bynum, a powerhouse country-bluegrass musician and songwriter. It was a stellar, edge-of-your seat evening, but not because of the show-off pyrotechnics that mark some bluegrass acts. Bynum and his band (Dave Mosher on bass, Dave Keeney on dobro, and the luminous Lisa Case Doro on fiddle) played and sang masterfully all night long, but with an unspoken agreement to place the soul of the song front and center.
I guess there's a place for thousands of fancy notes. In fact, it's safe to say that I like thousands of fancy notes as well as the next bluegrass fan. I have even been known to holler "Whoo" at blistering solos. But for me, there's nothing like the soul of a song, served up three-part and high-lonesome. And this band seems to agree.
Bynum's parents came from Arkansas to the Detroit area in the 1940s; Bill and his brothers and sisters grew up listening to artists like Johnny Cash and Buck Owens on Detroit's country station, the "Big D," on an old AM radio. Music's been a big part of his life ever since, but he really got serious about writing and performing about eight years ago. When Bynum sings, he throws his entire body into each tensile, spot-on note. He's a powerful rhythm guitar player.
Apparently, he's also a financial planner, though this was not evident during the performance.
The songs spanned American roots music, from the kickoff "Radio Boogie" to Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" to Randy Weeks's "Can't Let Go" made hugely popular by Lucinda Williams and given an interesting, chugging delicacy here, with this drum-free arrangement. But Bynum's five or six excellent original songs were the highlights of the evening. "Jackson County Blue" describes his family's frustration as his older brother made choices that earned him
a ride on the "Blue Goose" the blue-painted bus to Jackson Prison. "Hard to Please" is a sassy, funny song about his wife. "Arkansas" somehow tied everything all together with details both small and sweeping about a place that is clearly still very much in Bynum's blood.
This fine band played for hours, chatting and joking with a deeply attentive and very happy audience in a swanky renovated condo basement in a nondescript Ann Arbor-area subdivision. People were there from Canada, Nashville, and beyond. But when the band played "Arkansas" well, that's just where we were.
Bill Bynum is at the Ark on Tuesday, July 10. You can also catch him at the Thursday night "Sounds & Sights" in downtown Chelsea on Thursday, July 5, and at the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room on Saturday, July 21.
[Review published July 2007]