Ralph White doesn't need to wish he was a mole in ground, to paraphrase the immortal folk lament the raw traditionalist used to cover with the Bad Livers, the beloved Austin bluegrass/punk trio he played in from 1990 to 2000. Since then, White has remained as hella underground as ever, carving a solo niche by combining his banjo, fiddle, and accordion with African thumb pianos. First floated on 2001's totally underrated Trash Fish and fleshed out a little more on the 2007 CD-R Navasota River Devil Squirrel (now reissued on LP), White finds the palette’s deepest settings yet with the new Atavistic Waltz.
The kalimba and banjo fall around one another like raindrops, endlessly pleasing. It's a natural sound, of course, the banjo being of African origin. It doesn't get old, White employing them with all manners of invention. Recording solo, White gets into intimate dialogues with himself. On "Stain On My Brain," the instruments, topped by White's fiddle, bounce rhythmic ideas back and forth. Their shared tone, warm and plunked and without sustain, also leads to another property the two instruments have in common: their entwined sense of rhythm and melody. In White's music, they almost never seem to solo, just wrap around each other effortlessly.
White tackles traditionals, of course, including "Bosco Stomp," "Who'll Rock the Cradle" (aka "Sugar Baby" in its Anthology of American Folk Music incarnation and a million other variations) and "The Cuckoo," done slightly strummier, with Amy Annelle, White’s partner in Precious Blood. There’s also a deep mountain music version of Willie Dixon’s "Spoonful" (no credit for the late Dixon, though). But, whatever, White has clearly studied—probably lived in—the old, weird America. Where he shines, though, is in his original tunes, which transmutates the shambolic, raw material of old folk music into songs that don’t sound like they’re being needlessly nostalgic. (Well, sometimes. The title track is a bit soft, in that regards, but it’s such an enthralling performance on a button accordion, sounding like its coming out of some proto-robotic squeezeboxer in a painted-on period get-up in a penny arcade somewhere.)
On "The End of the Tar," White's arrangement—banjo, kalimba, fiddle—basks in an authentic herky-jerky loveliness, as if kalimbas were there all along on old Dock Boggs records, buried by the ravages of primitive recording equipment. But, as a song, "The End of the Tar" isn’t trying to do anything remotely traditional. White is the product, too, of another eight or so decades of popular (and unpopular) songwriting, its phrasing, and its subject matter.
"I think of you all the time, when I hear that train, wondering if you ever felt the same, and I feel the rain, and I call your name," he sings, scanning a bit like Blonde on Blonde Dylan with its ABBBB rhyme scheme, with its surprising fifth line. It’s a move that’s somehow simultaneously modern, beautiful and personal, but the kind of idiosyncratic move that might show up on one of those old, weird records, even if one would be hard-pressed to find a specific instance of it happening. Likewise, there are a lot of fifth lines on The Atavistic Waltz, even if one might be hard-pressed to find another example.