Sleepy Man Banjo Boys- The Farthest Horizon review

imagesMy review of the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys recently released second album has been posted to the Lonesome Road Review. There isn’t anything obviously ‘wrong’ with the album; it just isn’t terribly interesting. Or distinctive. Yes, I am mean. And narrow-minded. O, well.

I have no problem with kids playing music, and actually appreciate that they take an active interest in making music. Without kids who learn to play, and enjoy doing so, there wouldn’t be adults making music that I actually am eager to pay for the privilege of listening to. What I don’t want is to pay for the privilege of hearing people learning their craft.

If you’ve ever heard an eleven-year old girl sing “Crazy” or “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” on a fair stage, you may appreciate the sentiment. Similarly, I don’t need to hear teenagers and pre-teens play a Bill Monroe tune. BTW, the final sentence of the published review, not mine: call it, editor’s prerogative.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Sleepy Man Banjo Boys
The Farthest Horizon
2 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Straight up—I don’t get it.

Unless I’ve had a relationship with them—family members and friends, students I’ve taught—I’ve never been into hearing kids play music for my own aesthetic enjoyment. I’ve often stated that I don’t believe anyone should record before their 18th birthday.
I’ve felt that way about every 12-year old country singer I’ve seen in too short shorts and too much makeup on a county fair stage. I’m reminded of it each time I witness a teenager performing a ‘tweener at a folk festival. Hell, I felt that way about Chris Thile and Nickel Creek, as good as they were, and the Abrams Brothers did nothing to dissuade me of this unpopular opinion.  I’ve been justified in holding this narrow-minded attitude a hundred times, not the least of which was when I finally saw and heard Cherryholmes live.

I know it isn’t logical, and I realize it is patently unfair and close-minded. And I understand that I’ve likely missed some good music because of my staunch, codgerly ‘rule.’

When the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys—New Jersey brothers Jonny (10), Robbie (13) and Tommy Mizzone (14)—started making the rounds a year or so ago, I completely ignored them.

I didn’t tune in to see them on Letterman. I didn’t go searching for them on YouTube. Again, I didn’t care. When the phenomenon didn’t fade away like farmers doing “Gangnam Style” parodies, and I was assigned this album, I did at least look at some of the clips and did a little reading. Who am I to argue with J.D. Crowe, Andy Leftwich (who plays mandolin throughout this album), Mountain Heart, and Pete Wernick?

I still don’t get it.

I accept that they are kids, and their hearts are in the right place. I trust that the parents are not living their dreams vicariously through offspring, and that the boys are doing this because they want to. And I understand the novelty.

I’ve listened to The Farthest Horizon likely a dozen times. The tunes make pleasant background music. But I hear nothing—including Leftwich’s mando contributions, because they don’t stand out—that I couldn’t hear at any decent bluegrass jam or local festival. It isn’t bad, not by any means. The instrumentals sound fine. The music sounds good, and I suppose that should be ‘good enough.’

What I don’t hear is ‘life.’ The instances where Ashley Lilly, granddaughter of bluegrass pioneer Everett Lilly, sings are interesting from that perspective, but underwhelming except to give my ‘rule’ additional merit. I can’t argue that the trio of brothers from New Jersey doesn’t have musical talent, because they obviously do. Guitarist Tommy Mizzone seems to have a style I might enjoy in the future.

I’ve certainly heard more skilled versions of “Gold Rush” and “Shuckin’ the Corn.” Their original instrumentals don’t stand out; only a single one has stayed with me longer than the time it took to play. “The Man from Danville,” obviously inspired by the playing of Tony Rice, is memorable, but not necessarily remarkable. The lyrics to “Always the One” read like they were discovered scribbled onto a middle-schooler’s notebook.

At the outset, I admitted that I don’t get it. But if you don’t hold child musicians to the same standard as adult professionals and can enjoy them on that level, you will find something good here.

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