Released: February 2010
Reviewed by Art Menius 2/10/2012
Seattle’s Grant Dermody long ago earned a reputation as an excellent harmonica blower equally comfortable in blues, old-time, and roots music while also capable of quite good singing and songwriting. Lay Down My Burden, his late 2011 release featuring more than two-dozen collaborators, marks only his second solo release and first in eight years. He recorded it while processing the passing of his wife, both parents, and mentor John Cephas, who makes his final recorded appearance here. Indeed, Cephas’ lead vocal over his guitar and Dermody’s harp on “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” from Skip James provides a highlight. The deceased are all pictured in the oddly hard to find CD brochure.
Dermody has gained a good deal of attention over the past couple of years by touring with acclaimed blues guitarist Eric Bibb, whose clear, authoritative guitar playing powers the opening Gary Davis’ cover “I’ll Be Alright” alongside Dermody’s harp and warm voice. Grant has recorded one CD with the old-time ensemble The Improbabillies, whereas his second CD as part of Johnson, Miller & Dermody has appeared since the release of Lay Down My Burden.
“So Sweet,” adapted from John Jackson with additional lyrics, displays again Dermody’s charming singing voice, while showcasing his blowing in a traditional Piedmont blues setting. He gets to visit similar territory with octogenarian Durham bluesman guitarist John Dee Holeman, whose voice belies his age on “You Don’t Have to Go.”
Whatever the genre or group, Dermody fits in because his playing is authentic. The old-time and roots tracks ring just a true as the blues. Grant and Mark Graham turn Henry Whittier’s “Rain Crow Bill” into a raucous two harmonica shout. He and Richie Stearns on delicate, precise banjo provide a winning interpretation of “Waterbound” (which have been playing on WMMT) that leads into an equally successful “Twelve Gates to the City” in a twin mouth harp arrangement. Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” gets an acapella quartet arrangement that shines. “Amazing Grace” shows his ability to slow down into a deeply soulful groove that sets up Orville Johnson on Dobro and Darick Campbell on lap steel for some engaging jamming. “David’s Cow” proves a fun trio effort to combine both blues and old-time.
Of the original songs, I preferred “First Light” with his hokum feel reminiscent of the African-American string bands that, like Grant, combined blues and old-time. The title track, “Lay Down My Burden,” is a full band electric blues with perhaps too heavy a rhythm section.
Lay My Burden Down is the most down-to-earth, straight from the heart recording with such a large cast of stellar collaborators I have heard by anyone not named Mike Seeger. Grant Dermody and his many friends have produced a lovely hour of honest music from “I’ll Be Alright to the closing Tibetan Buddhist prayer with harmonica and Dobro.