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John Lilly

Our critics' picks in new releases

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If Hank Williams had a sunny disposition, he'd be John Lilly. But beyond the vocal resemblance and the honkytonk attitude, there's a lot to recommend about Lilly's solo debut, Broken Moon: some intriguing traditional and original tunes, wonderful harmony vocals from Virginia's Ginny Hawker, and guitar and fiddle backup from West Virginia old-time musicians David O'Dell and Buddy Griffin.

Lilly was a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, a contributing editor to Durham's Old Time Herald magazine, and is the current editor of Goldenseal, a journal of West Virginia history and folk culture. But he's been a performer as well as a historian, having toured internationally as a member of the Green Grass Cloggers dance group, and recorded two albums with Tennessee fiddler Ralph Blizard's New Southern Ramblers.

It all comes together on Broken Moon, where he brings new life to traditional tunes like "Sweet Sunny South" and the haunting "I've Always Been a Rambler." Hawker is especially fine on the Louvin Brothers' "You'll Be Rewarded Over There," "Spirit (Bend Close to Me)," written by Lilly and Blizard, and the title track (inspired by Lilly's 2-year-old son, describing a crescent moon). There's other songs of faith, too, including Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart's "Thy Burdens are Greater Than Mine" and the unaccompanied primitive Baptist hymn, "Beset by Snares."

The sparse production, along with Lilly's vocals, make even his original tunes sound tried, true and downright traditional, like the wistful, "Wishful Drinking," which could have been recorded by old Hank himself (and I know he would have tore up "Bigfoot Stole My Baby"). Lilly plays mandolin, guitar and bass, and is even a mighty fine yodeler on tunes like "In the Hills of Tennessee," popularized by Jimmie Rodgers. Add in the liner notes, with their nuggets of fascinating facts--"(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" is actually a tricked-out version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"--and Broken Moon is one neat slice of music and music history.

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