Like the first volume of Art of Field Recording, this second installment is a four-CD box set of considerable size and scope of field recordings by Art Rosenbaum. The 107 tracks, recorded between 1956 and 2008 (the very year this set was issued), cover an enormous range of American traditional music. Cajun, Appalachian folk, country blues, gospel, Sacred Harp singing, sacred steel guitar, and a cappella vocals are among the styles documented. It might not quite get to everything, but it certainly captures plenty of approaches that had little to no exposure in the conventional commercial music business over this half century, yet were preserved and performed outside of the media spotlight. Like its predecessor, it's also divided into four separate thematic discs, though these are slightly different this time around. The first and second CDs are (as they were in Vol. 1) devoted to a "survey" disc encompassing a bunch of styles and a disc of religious material; the third and fourth go into different directions by presenting a CD of "accompanied songs and ballads," and another wholly of "unaccompanied songs and ballads," or songs performed a cappella. A few performers here and there will be known to folk fans (Cajun musicians the Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire, bluesman Scrapper Blackwell, Alice Gerrard, Buell Kazee), but mostly these are musicians without commercial profiles who make music because they want to, happening to get these performances taped by Rosenbaum.
Art of Field Recording, Vol. 2 is of a similar level of quality as Vol. 1 -- which, it should be noted, might not be to everyone's taste, even folk and traditional music fans. These are field recordings spanning several decades, so the fidelity, while always listenable, isn't always sparkling. The performances are often on the spontaneous and even roughly stark side, and while that's justly hailed as part of their emotional impact, it doesn't always make for captivating listening, especially in such a lengthy dose. And while it seems a little spoilsport to make this kind of complaint about traditional music, some of the songs are pretty shopworn -- "John Hardy" might be a very significant folk song on its own merits, but do listeners really need to hear yet another version, and hardly one of the most distinguished ones? The set's greatest value is a folkloric one that lies in its sheer diversity, with an unselfconsciousness and ease that have become rarer commodities in music, not to say life in general, in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Plus, there are occasional performances (even if these tend to be the more polished ones) that would stand as enjoyable pieces outside of the context of this box set, like the Chancey Brothers' guitar-banjo duet "Mulberry Gap/Cumberland Gap"; Golden River Grass' energetic bluegrass-gospel hybrid (with harmonica) "Over in the Glory Land"; and the Myers Family & Friends' quite movingly sung and played selections, which are a nicely swinging blend of Appalachian folk with a bluegrass tinge. And, though an entire disc of a cappella singing might be too much for some listeners, it's more diverse and listenable than many would expect, with a few surprisingly rambunctious items; noted singer/songwriter Greg Brown even makes a surprise appearance on it, dueting with his grandmother on a 1978 recording of "Two Little Boys." The packaging is superb (and the element of this release that will get it far more attention than most such folkloric compilations), the large-sized 96-page booklet including both detailed background information and more than 100 photos and illustrations.