Written by James Killen
Grifters and Shills is actually John and Rebecca Stoll, a married couple bound together in music. Their stage presence exudes companionship. Rebecca’s musical background is traditional country and bluegrass, while John came up in the hard rock and heavy metal world. They employ a number of instruments in their shows including kazoos and 3 string cigar box banjos. They have a nice repertoire of original music, but for “Road to Brownwood” the couple chose to showcase seventeen traditional tracks giving them their own unique spin.
The first track is “St James Infirmary” done in a most spooky vane with eerie slide intro and John providing a shadowy background vocal and ghostly guitar leads. “Wildwood Flower” comes out much more traditional in style with harmonica and washboard flourishes. The Stolls chose to do a stripped down and basic version of “Rock Salt and Nails” to honor folk traditionalist, Utah Phillips.
It’s a bluegrass banjo standard with a little G&S twist that the band presents on “Little Maggie”. The pair does a very lively upbeat version of the gospel, “Down by the Riverside” complete with a great slide lead. One of my personal favorite traditional blues tunes, “Ain’t No More Cane”, is delivered with a very simple washboard, harmonica and guitar, much like I would imagine it was performed in the work camps along the Brazos.
John dominates the “12 bar blues” number, “James Alley Blues” with a straight forward harmonica and slide guitar, while taking the vocals on. Rebecca and John sing the country gospel “Hard Times Come Again No More’ in a most traditional style accented by some tasteful modern electric guitar effects. Sticking with gospel, G&S offers an a cappella “Down in the River to Pray”, with just a touch of background slide guitar.
John mixes traditional bluegrass banjo with slide guitar and a touch of kazoo on “Ain’t Got No Home” for an amazing blend of styles on an old country gospel number. The kazoo comes to the front of this version of the bluesy “Liza Jane”. John and Rebecca devised the chords for the lyrics of “Columbus Stockade Blues”, presenting a very poignant country blues tune. G&S recorded a bare bones ukulele version of “You Are my Sunshine” during a rainstorm, giving it a particular pensive and pleading tone in contrast to the usual upbeat presentation.
“I’ll Fly Away” has lasted through the decades as a gospel standard for those feeling the weight of the world and all of that victory in the face of adversity comes through on this simple banjo presentation. John takes “I’m Troubled” from a straight bluegrass tune to one that features a slide lead and a tongue in cheek vocal that gives the song new life. Staying true to the country gospel theme, Rebecca leads the vocals of “Uncloudy Day”. John plays an amplified resonator with a slide to present an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace” that is at one time modernized and still true to the reverence that the tune was meant to portend.
While this recording is not a complete representation of what Grifters and Shills is all about, it is a very comprehensive effort to address roots music. I am impressed with the preservation of the initial intent of the songs with the effort to make them relevant in the 21st century. This recording is a handy jumping off point for someone that is interested in musicology, to dig deeper into the roots of the music that we enjoy today. I also encourage folks around Houston to catch a Grifters and Shills show. It is indeed a heart-warming and entertaining experience.