Arkansas native Joe Sundell's new CD — his first solo effort — is 11 tracks of some tasty, locally grown roots music. The content on "Ramblin' Mind" is a well-balanced combination of original material paired with songs from the catalogs of several roots legends. And, of course, no folkster worth his salt would put together a collection of songs without including at least one song credited to "Traditional" (or “Trad” as his friends refer to him).
Sundell is indeed worth his salt, taking care of the lead vocals, banjo, guitar and harmonica himself. He gets a lot of help from some familiar names: Paul Morphis, his old band mate from Damn Bullets, shows up in the writing credits. Melissa Carper, bassist in Sundell’s band Sad Daddy, nails down the bottom end and provides the backing vocals. His multi-talented sister-in-law, Corri Bristow Sundell provided the artwork and graphic design for the cover. If that name rings a bell it’s because Corri and Jack Sundell own and operate the recently opened and wildly popular The Root restaurant on South Main in Little Rock.
The instrumentation is basic and restrained. Don't expect to find any blistering bluegrass banjo leads or tired, wailing blues guitar solos. What you will find is balanced, workmanlike musicianship that gets the job done and seems deceptively relaxed and simple. A few of the eleven songs really stood out.
The title track has a great rural swing feel. Chris Peterson’s fiddle lead would be at home in any dusty old dancehall down in Texas. Sundell's cover of Blind Blake's "That'll Never Happen No More” is infectious and will have you singing along in short order. On "Richland Woman Blues," his banjo provides a worthy interpretation of Mississippi John Hurt's exceptional guitar style.
For me the song that shown brightest was Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train". This was a ballsy choice. “Freight Train” is a guitar finger picking standard, one of those songs that wind up being used by other guitar players to measure your abilities. Joe gives us a clean, evenly paced left-handed rendering while his singing, along with Carper’s backing vocals, keep this from being a stale exercise in musical technique. In truth, Carper absolutely melts me on this track. Her gravely, hushed, sweet harmonies make me wish I was that big bass fiddle she has her arm wrapped around.
My criticisms of the album are few. Joe has avoided many of the pitfalls that are common among modern folk albums. It can be all too easy for a folk album to get too gentle, easy or sweet. Before you know it, these albums are dangerously close to having an early ’60s “cheese-folk” sound, à la Christopher Guest’s folk mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.” Track eight, “Joe’s Dream,” dances lightly on that brink, but never actually falls headlong into the pit.