Where The Handsome Family lead, Pharis & Jason Romero stay closer to their roots. They are otherwise very similar – a husband and wife duo, an impressive beard and songwriting. In their favour the Romeros have, in Jason, a very fine banjo player and a penchant for the dustier byways of American song.
A Wanderer I’ll Stay opens with its radio-friendly title track, a counter-intuitively jolly song extolling the joys of the open road and ‘Ballad Of Old Bill’ which follows pretty much the same pattern. ‘There’s No Companion’ adheres to the country tradition of having a miserable set of words married to a bright tune so you don’t notice. “There’s no companion like the misery of an unfulfilled desire” before moving on to ‘New Lonesome Blues’ and ‘Lonesome & I’m Going Back Home’. You don’t immediately realise what a downer this album could be – most of the protagonists are lonesome, half of them are moving on and the rest are going home.
It is the music and the Romeros’ harmonies that lift the album. After five original songs of misery and loneliness, Jason switches to a solo instrumental played on a gourd banjo which has an usually deep and rich tone. Then they take their first dip into history with ‘Goodbye, Old Paint’, which appears to be the version noted by Alan Lomax from Jess Morris. I mention this because there are numerous versions of the song around and I’d like to think it’s significant that they have gone for the oldest known version.
There’s more history with ‘Cocaine Blues’ – another first version, this time from Luke Jordan who recorded it in 1927 – and finally Buell Kazee’s Civil War song ‘The Dying Soldier’. Between them is another banjo instrumental, ‘Old September’, a languid, bluesy piece quite unlike the style Jason uses as an accompanist.
I’m not normally a fan of pure country music and the Romeros could be straight down the line with guest fiddle and pedal steel but I really like the way they wander off the trail if they spot something they like.
Artists’ website: www.pharisandjason.com
Pharis & Jason Romero play ‘Ballad Of Old Bill’ in the snow: