Minnesota Music Reviews: Sugar on the Roof
Sugar on the Roof, a Duluth-based string band, has found a way to make old-time music sound fresh, new and irresistible to toe tappers and cowboy-boot dancers all across the northland.
The trio - Megan Orwig Reynolds on guitar and vocals, Jefferson Reynolds on banjo and trombone, and Clancy Ward on fiddle and vocals - released its debut album, Hat Drop, in February. The record mixes tasty originals, impeccably-sourced covers and one special ingredient to create a lively musical cookbook of country songs.
So what’s the not-so-secret special ingredient? The slide trombone.
Sugar on the Roof sweetens up 10 of the 14 tracks on Hat Drop with a heavy helping of trombone. Jefferson Reynolds delivers a deep, rich brass sound that brings an extra dimension to each song. On faster pieces, it’s a driving bass counterbalance to the rhythm guitar; and on slower, more contemplative material the instrument anchors the mood.
Best of all, the trombone adds a creative twist that generates a big call to the dance floor.
Sure, some string band traditionalists might reject the trombone as too showy or cumbersome, but Sugar on the Roof makes it work because the group has a light touch and deep, traditional foundation.
Megan Orwig Reynolds and Clancy Ward produce the same sweet, off-kilter harmony taught in the Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings song school. And that’s not all they do: Orwig Reynolds supplies a spot-on rhythm guitar and Ward knows how to make his fiddle sound 100-years-old in all the right places.
The group makes old West Texas waltzes or classic country tunes sound new and newly-written material sound old. For example, “You Done Me Wrong,” a 1956 Ray Price b-side co-written by George Jones, blends heartbreaking melody with a soft trombone genty sobbing in the background. And “Ridin’ On Down,” penned by Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Cindy Walker, floats like a Saturday afternoon pontoon cruise on Island Lake.
“Red Rocking Chair,” a song described by the group as coming from “the old time melting pot,” is combined with the 19th Century minstrel tune “Sandy Boys,” ending the piece with a blazing fiddle solo.
Orwig Reynolds and Ward sprinkle their own songs throughout Hat Drop with a dusty wisdom and a sweet smile. Their work sounds like it comes from a decade when mules still worked the fields and one-room schoolhouses sprang up at dirt road intersections.
“Pail of Water,” a bouncy Ward composition, finds old-fashioned country wisdom amid the flowers in the ditch while Orwig Reynolds draws a melancholy picture of a family farm sale on “Little White Shack on the Plain.” Her details breeze through the song like fireflies:
“Empty corn crib, empty clothes line,
nothing there but memories of mine:
Daddy watching the storms come in
Mama planting flowers again.”
In the end, Sugar on the Roof put down the trombone and close Hat Drop with the wistful, twin-fiddle instrumental “Through the Panes Waltz,” written by Erin O’Neil in 2019, followed by a spirited traditional southern reel “Black-Eyed Susie.” The pairing demonstrates again how to make the new sound old and the old sound new.