Grit & Polish – Mark Schatz & Bryan McDowell

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Curtailed from touring by the pandemic, multi-instrumentalists Mark Schatz and Bryan McDowell, both former members of the Claire Lynch Band, opted instead to retreat Schatz’s basement recording studio and cut thirteen tracks that provide a fine representation of combined dexterity and versatility. Though they’re the sole players on the aptly dubbed Girt & Polish, they fill out the sound remarkably well courtesy of a set of songs spawned from both original and vintage compositions.

Schatz does most of the songwriting — his tender My East Tennessee Home, featuring Lynch’s guest vocals, and West Virginia Reverie, are two of many highlights here — although the pluck and strut of McDowell’s Cruso Flood is a strong showing as well. Other stand-out selections include a sensitive and sentimental read of Bob Dylan’s One Too Many Mornings, and a jaunty take on the playful age-old standard, There Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens. Nevertheless, it’s the instrumental offerings that show the duo to best advantage, whether it’s the predominant banjo/fiddle interplay of Kensington Station, the sweet serenade that morphs with upbeat exuberance on the Johnny Gimble-written medley, Gardenia Waltz/Flop Eared Mule, or the celebratory stroll that forms the basis of Fiddle Medley. In each case, even the sparest settings are fueled with the pair’s innate exuberance, basking in the pure joy that comes with making music from a decidedly traditional template.

The inspiration behind this creative and compelling display is easily imagined. Between them, the two men show remarkable instrumental acumen and agility, with guitar, fiddle, mandolin, jawbone, stand-up bass, and an array of percussion that provide spirited rhythms and a seemingly spontaneous stance. Consequently, even songs derived from older origins  — be it the bold strokes of Doc Watson’s Muskrat, Flatt and Scruggs’ banjo-driven The Girl I Love, or the sobering Yiddish hymn, Papirosen (paired here with Bob Wills’ Maiden’s Prayer) — ring with a rambling, folk-fueled verve and vitality that further emphasizes the decidedly down-home designs.

Eschewing pretense in order to focus on purity and purpose serves Schatz and McDowell well. Grit & Polish makes for a formidable combination, as well as a joyful gem indeed.

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