Album Review

Ben Townsend, Old Time Cross Country Bicycle Oddysey

Ben Townsend and Friends - Deep End Sessions, Vol. 3

photo by Seth Joel, courtesy of Deep End Sessions, Ben Guzman and Ben Townsend

Ben Townsend And Friends
Deep End Sessions Vol III
Old Time

Roots Music. Americana. Okay. Non-mainstream music has to be classified and categorized somewhere, somehow, right? No Depression is and has been the “Authority” herald of this up and down, tower of sub-genre, mostly featuring singer-songwriters and ensembles who have made a splash or a wave somewhere to get some sort of following. It all started somewhere didn’t it? What we call Old Time was once current, once the medium for entertainment, danceable, social, haunting, chronicling the news of the day. It wasn’t Old Time then. In the world of Americana/Roots, Old Time is the tap root. We are very lucky there are folks determined to keep it alive and real...and current.

Photo by Seth Joel, courtesy of Deep End-Ben Guzman, left, Ben Townsend, right.
Ben Townsend, a multi-instrumentalist-vocalist, now living in Los Angeles, CA, by way of Hampshire Co. WV, is releasing a deep, enriching and entertaining collection of fairly obscure old time tunes, inspired by his recent cross country bicycle tour from WV to CA, with friend and co-musician, Ben Guzman. This trek is a whole story in itself, pretty much related in the album’s booklet and Guzman's website, and will be discussed a little later in a feature article at, where you’ll also be able to read about some of the musical folks they encountered along the way, to be presented in their web series, produced by Ben Guzman’s Small/Medium/Large Productions,
Billed as  “The Two Bens”, the official release party will be held in Los Angeles on January 9th at The Velaslavasy Theater. You can be there via Concert Windows by following this link,                                           

Do not expect to hear something like Tim O’Brien or Dirk Powell swapping hot licks in the old time way, which, by the way, is 
great stuff but presented in a little different high fidelity setting. This album has none of that. This album is simply rich. 
Rich in tradition, rich in heart and soul and the honest personalities of these people come out in the interpretation of these traditional, mostly mountain tunes.
While the engineering, mastering and musicianship are certainly top notch and professional, (credit both Bens here), the feel that you get from listening is the kitchen table or back porch, putting the listener in the middle of the jam. 
The feeling I get when I listen is one of live informal, sharing good music in a non-commercial way that beckons to the listener to want to join in. That's the spirit of true Old Time. Many a hot lick or Bluegrass jam is a closed circle with a mini-performance taking place. Old Time jams are often a group, sometimes with several fiddles, but "come on in " emanates from the heart of the circle. It's not contrived. It's real. It's tribal communal. It draws me. The first video is also track one from the album, featuring Joe Wack and Ben Townsend performing "Old Christmas Morning".
The 17 tracks cover it all with each song's origin and inspiration deeply defined in the album’s booklet. My personal favorite is “Lift Him Up, That Is All”, by Texas gospel singer/writer/musician, Washington Phillips, 1880-1954. The liner notes also cover parts of the bike trip which restored new faith in American Southern Hospitality, 100 mile a day pedaling, being shot at in a park and denied access crossing an Interstate bridge, just to touch on a few pages. Fascinating folk life in action. Again, tune into for the complete feature story in the next month or so.

This Coast to Coast bike trip landed just north of Los Angeles at Deep End Ranch where David Bunn has built a wormhole to the past, in the middle of a lemon farm. Joined by a host of notable LA Old Time masters such as David Bragger, Susan Platz, Joe Wack and many more colorful, unique and very real musician folks. The seventeen tunes that Ben and Ben present are pure Old Time, embellished with fiddle, banjo, accordion, mandolin, guitar and vocals that are reminiscent of the early field recordings of Appalachia, right there in the California hills. About Deep End Sessions, David says, “Here’s some home-made acoustic music in the old-time tradition, recorded in the living room of a California farm house we call “the lodge.” Built in 1908, the old wooden walls, beamed ceiling and old rugs of the living room seem to have some rather wonderful sonic characteristics.”

Ben Townsend is no stranger to Old Time. Ben is not a rural tobacco spitter, (like myself, minus the tobacco). Ben is not a trend chaser, coming Down From The Mountain in search of Oh Brother. Matter of fact while these music/drama events, including Songcatcher and Cold Mountain were creating yet another “folk scare”, Ben was already deep into the genre, having learned some banjo from Riley Baugus. Ben told me, “I remember going to see Oh Brother with my friend from home who was a fiddler, and we enjoyed the movie, and I remember that I watched Cold Mountain because Riley Baugus was in it as a voice and I learned a lot of banjo from him.  And I remember being interested in Songcatcher because Hazel Dickens was in it, and honestly I think I liked that movie the best of the three and remember watching it with my mom when I would come home from college, but by the time that was all happening I had already been playing for several years and was already meeting the real people that would change my life forever.  Those just kind of seemed like movies to me, and I never understood what the big deal was, they were great entertainment, but didn’t really speak to me the same way that the real people I was learning from at the time did.” Ben played and travelled several years with his band, The Fox Hunt, ( see Nd article from 2010  and later with the Hackensaw Boys as well, and has recorded on several projects.

Ben grew up in West VA, but not way out there in some remote holler. Ben was situated in a rich area for music, accessible from several directions. “I grew up out on a river road by the South Branch of the Potomac river and am kind of a river rat, loved fishing growing up and used to raft guide and love to spend a lot of my spare time out on the river canoeing and what not. My family lived 5 miles from town and when I was young we’d have to drive an hour to get groceries before they built the Food Lion in Romney, but we were also one of the first families in the neighborhood to get the internet.  I built computers with my dad all the time as a kid (built my first one at age 5).”

Ben’s musical influences are all over the place. “I love Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch, outsider music.  I think I’m drawn to these characters and how deliberately they went against the grain just like a Sherman Hammons type or a Tommy Dillon. I think that’s kind of what is awesome about this Appalachian idea of self preservation and self reliance and all, but I see it in many people from all over.  The past few years I’ve been listening mostly to hip hop.  I finally got really into MF DOOM after years of hearing I should check it out and then just went down the rabbit hole from there, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Kanye West, Beastie Boys, KRS-ONE, sample based boom bap hip hop is just an amazing, accessible mostly American art form, and I’m hooked on it currently.”

Ben Townsend is not a hillbilly. Ben is a world traveler, an adventurer, heck he went cross country on a bicycle carting instruments. You might just call him fearless, especially trying to make a living as a full-time, non-mainstream Old Time musician with a love for hip hop. That's rare and odd and true and unique- that's Ben Townsend.

Deep End Sessions Vol III, was produced by David Bunn. Engineered by Ben Townsend and Ben Guzman, Mastered by Carl Saff with a very cool hue to the old timey graphics by Kaylan George.

Get to know Ben Townsend, Ben Guzman, Deep End's David Bunn, all on FaceBook

Written by Ernie Hill,