Reviews Of Joel Mabus CDs
No Worries Now
The Banjo Monologues
Golden Willow Tree
Six Of One
How Like The Holly
NO WORRIES NOW
("on the edge" review) Dec. '09
I'm embarrassed and grateful. I'm red-faced because, until now, I had
never heard of Joel Mabus, and this is his twentieth album, but it's also
with gratitude that I've finally crossed paths with his marvelous talent. It
took no more than twenty seconds after hitting the CD's first track,
"Am I Right," that I turned to my wife and said, "I like this
guy." Judging by this CD alone, Mabus understands the intricate details
of the "keep-it-simple" formula. He proves less is more throughout
this 14-track disc. Backed only by Frank Youngman on upright bass, Mabus
adds his acoustic guitar, mandolin, and vocals in a simple, yet powerful,
arrangement of many cleverly written tunes. Except for a couple of numbers,
he wrote the lyrics and music to the rest of the record. Listeners will
enjoy the light verse of "Alligator Ate Her Poodle," the ditty,
"Come Along Again," and the jump tune, "Am I Right."
Mabus explores the life of colorful small-town crime boss, "Charlie
Birger," reflects on the hymns he sang in church as a child through the
instrumental, "The Lost Shall Be Redeemed" and dreams of days gone
by in "Halfway Home." He even includes the bonus track,
"Extra Poison" to complement "Poison In The Glass" about
the fates of some of history's intriguing characters. (Fossil Records, P.O.
Box 306, Portage, MI 49081, www.joelmabus.com.) BC
Folk Alley (Jim Blum) Nov '09
Joel Mabus is folk legend in Michigan and very worthy of that moniker. He
has been crafting songs and preserving overlooked traditional melodies for
years, and he does all of this on every stringed instrument you can think
of. From the amusing "Duct Tape Blues," to the calming "The
Only Way Out is Through," Joel's observational eye has gifted the Folk
Alley library with dozens of heartwarming gems over the years.
There is no let up in No Worries Now. He covers lots of subjects. He
pokes at political parties in "You Voted Red" (and I voted
blue...). Mabus offers a practical solution for those who no longer drink in
"Two Cents Plain." The song's title is an old term for ordering a
non alcoholic drink, but his clever rhyme and reasoning might open a few
eyes among those trying to quit. Perhaps the most alluring number is
"Give It Up." This song addresses our ambitions, which if we're
not careful, can drift away from the meaningful toward the materialistic.
I don't mean to paint Joel as a lecturer, because he's not. This album is
very entertaining, and often comical. Very few songwriters can poke you in
the ribs and stick to your ribs at the same time. Mr. Mabus has this double
ability and he always has. No Worries Now is another collection defining why
fans will remember his songs.
Victory Review Acoustic Music Magazine
It’s hard to imagine anyone playing acoustic guitar better than Joel
Mabus. This is the Compleat Guitar (as in The Compleat Angler) for those who
might have previously thought they played rather well. The best methods of
good guitar recording bring you inside that wooden box. On this CD, Ragtime,
Blues and Folk methods are played with ease. Perhaps those are the rewards
of a long career. Joel adds to the mystery with mandolin and additional
leads. He barely needs but certainly benefits from the well rounded acoustic
bass of Frank Youngman.
The real surprise to me isn’t the guitar but the great voice with
almost a Burl Ives inflection and higher register. When Joel sings ‘coyote’
I see coyote. But wait, he also wrote this stuff including arrangements
built on two public domain tunes. You’ll get great lyrics, clever
Shakespearean references like ‘Poison in the Glass’, an understatement
of divergent politics in ‘You Voted Red’, a somewhat historical lesson
on the legendary Illinois crime boss who ran the KKK off his turf in ‘Charlie
Birger’, a wonderful restatement of an old (1860) Baptist hymn, ‘How Can
I Keep From Singing’, and a wonderful instrumental as haunting as a Ken
Burns theme, ‘The Lost Shall Be Redeemed’.
For the most part, this is light hearted stuff, and poems that are
subtle. ‘Alligator Ate Her Poodle’ deftly points out that people who
move into condos erected over the previous wildlife habitat can’t seem to
figure out why that environment doesn’t cooperate. ‘Two Cents Plain’
could easily be a Depression Era tune, describing a purchaser of plain ol’
soda water, simply wanting to fit in at the bar when real whisky is
financially out of the question. ‘Halfway Home’ and ‘Shine’ are very
personal, tell how to revisit the home of your youth and ‘Turn it
around-love can be found, but you got to let your little light shine.’
Folkradio.org reports that Joel is the fourth most played performer and
was the nominee for Traditional Folk Artist of the Year 2008 by the Folk
Alliance International. Even in 2009 you’ve still got plenty of
opportunity to hear this wonderful guitar and song stylist. [J.W. McClure]
Lansing State Journal
Chris Rietz, reviewer Oct. 8, 2009
Not since "Rhyme Schemes" back in 1997 has Michigan's own folk
Renaissance man Joel Mabus issued an album of all-new, all-original songs -
although since then he's produced a Christmas album, a CD of traditional
songs, an album of narratives and banjo tunes, an all-instrumental
fingerpicking guitar album and lots more.
That spell is now over with the September release of "No Worries
Now," the 20th album in this unique artist's three-decades-long career,
13 songs so fresh, variegated and unpredictable it sounds as though he's
just warming up.
In a folk universe thickly populated with confessional, quasi-countrified
songwriters, Mabus stands apart, for three reasons: one is that he's a
top-flight picker with a lifetime passport to the land of instrumental
hotshots, whereas most folkie songwriters can't go there. Listen to the
gorgeous, hymn-inspired guitar solo "The Lost Shall Be Redeemed"
or the thrilling, 'grassy solos on "Charlie Birger."
Another reason is Mabus's refusal to gaze at his own navel - "I
invent most of my characters," he insists, "especially the ones
named 'I.' " The result is a songwriting style with more breadth, from
the bewildered, comical love song "You Voted Red" to the nostalgic
A third reason is Mabus combines his depth of feeling for traditional
song with a long-standing respect for Tin Pan Alley songwriters, and while
he'll always be called a folk artist, many of his songs owe as much a debt
to, say, Hoagy Carmichael as to Woody Guthrie.
"Alligator Ate Her Poodle" is everything anyone needs to know
about Florida, stuffed into six tight, hilarious quatrains and set to the
tune of "Clementine." "Shine," on the other hand, is a
convincing exercise in swing, with a righteously breezy feel and some sharp
"Charlie Birger" is about a historical figure from southern
Illinois where Mabus grew up, reminiscent of Woody Guthrie's song about
Pretty Boy Floyd. "Poison in the Glass" is a virtuosic turn on
skullduggery throughout history, with an appropriately creepy minor-sixth
tonality - which in turn engenders the album's bonus track, a funny and
self-referential piece of business that tells us (as if we don't already
suspect it) that Mabus always seems to have more in the tank.
Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker
Unbelievably, almost every song on this CD was written by Joel Mabus but
sounds as though unearthed from the Golden Age of old blues, folk, Tin Pan
Alley, and Bob Wills. Moreover, there are just two guys here, Mabus and
Frank Youngman, who plays bass. Joel's been around for a while (the cover
photo kinda gives that away) and I, as a critic, have run across his name
more than once on others' releases but personally discovered the guy with
his Flying Fish release Settin' the Woods on Fire (1980 and out of print,
dammit!), which remains in my permanent collection. His website, however,
lists about 20 releases, with only 2 unavailable, so it's no longer
difficult, as it tended to be in The Vinyl Era, to lay hold of his stuff.
Mabus is esteemed not just for wry lyrics, superb playing, and catchy
compositions but also his banjo technique, which the bewhiskered gent
teaches and issues instructional books about. No Worries Now… is a
tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that though we're presently in the
wave crest of The Next Republican Depression and things are about as bad as
they could get, you've still got art and music, and that tends to ease all
the stress a tetch, no? After listening to this waltzing, jitterbugging,
swinging, folks-ing disc, you'll be forced to agree at least to that much.
In the press, not enough is made of Mabus' skills as a writer, but the
guy sparkles in his lyrics (a sheet's included with the CD). A college
course could be taught behind his poetry, and I, as a tutor, will now be
suggesting some of this disc's work for analysis by my high school students.
A good deal more clever than much of Shel Silverstein, whom I also convey to
kids, many of his words are jam-packed with multiple levels of meaning
despite the rurality and sidewalk nature of much of them. Toss rootsy music
on top, and you have a very formidable result.
Want music that not only makes yer toes tap and hips sway? Give a listen
to any cut here and sit amused as you ponder just what he's saying. For an
added bonus, the composer's liner notes are often both hilarious and ironic.
How many people do you know who can allude to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Judas
Iscariot, and Jean-Paul Marat and make it all eminently sensible?
THE JOEL MABUS
Joel Mabus Re-delivers Rich Songs on New 'Omnibus' Review
Chris Rietz | For the Lansing State Journal January 15, 2009
Released just in November, "Omnibus" is the 19th album from
Michigan's prolific Joel Mabus. With the exception of three tracks, all
regrooved and available on other of his albums, "Omnibus" is
essentially a reissue of his out-of-print albums "Firelake,"
released in 1990, and "Short Stories'' from '92 - making it a bookend
with last year's regroove project, "Retold."
The result is a rich 70-plus minutes, remastered by Kalamazoo's deft John
Stites and programmed in a new order, giving "Omnibus" the
freshness of a new album.
Mabus has a long-standing rep as an instrumental wiz, and the hot licks
flash in "Doc'sology," the sweet-toned mandolin in the "Grey
Mare" medley, or the evocative "Midsummer Night's Waltz," a
gorgeous guitar solo. He's also one of the best examples we have of the
traditional-song ethic, in which people with ordinary voices can become
effective - even great - singers.
But Mabus has long since put those things in service to his real
interest: songwriting. For matching sharp, witty, intelligent lyrics with
well-crafted, singable melodies whose seeming simplicity can conceal the
craft involved, there are few in the folk-songwriter world to match him.
And, as he himself points out in the notes, 1990-92 was a particularly
The CD opens with "Firelake," a hypnotic banjo tune familiar to
many as the theme from Mike Flynn's "Folk Sampler" on NPR.
"The Fiddle and the Bow" is a masterful piece of songwriting in
which a scene with prefab elements - the desperate young woman, the old
store owner - quickly gets turned on its head: both are less than
forthcoming in their dealings, and both get what they want.
"Omnibus" often plays like a showcase for several different
songwriters, not just one. "The Book I Gave Up Reading" is a
hilarious run-on invective about a match gone sour; the languid
"Honeysuckle Moon" sounds like a Tin Pan Alley song Jimmie Rodgers
would have tracked in the '20s.
"Oscar and Minnie," a song about his own grandparents, the
hopeful "Let It Be Me & You" and the anthemic "A Better
Voice" are still requested at Mabus's live shows. His take on the
climate crisis, "Warmer Every Day," was written in the '80s and is
an even hotter topic today, in both senses - and you'll love the line about
gondoliers in Brooklyn.
Michigan Songwriter Joel Mabus Retells It Like It Is
Written by Joe Torok for City Pulse
Wednesday, 09 January 2008
It's that time of year again for Joel Mabus. The folk singer, who used to
live in Lansing but now resides in southwestern Michigan, performs what he
calls "my homecoming concert" each year for the Ten Pound Fiddle
Coffeehouse. This year's concert - "the 15th or so," Mabus notes -
will feature songs from his new album, "Retold," as well as the
usual audience requests.
Mabus fans should recognize the lineup on his new album, which hits
stores Jan. 15 and is available now through his Web site. The songs are a
collection of oft-requested original pieces he penned during the first 10
years of his production company, Fossil Records.
He says the songs on the album are dear to his heart and continue to grow
and change through time. "I hate to say 'greatest hits,' because in
folk music we don't have hits," Mabus says.
He says the songs also closely resemble what he does when he performs, an
experience he has grown to love. "It used to be I just enjoyed making
music in front of people," he says. "Now I like interacting with
people. I like engaging them."
And that's a big part of what it means to be a folk musician, Mabus
explains. While audiences of Bluegrass or traditional Irish music might hone
in on a performer's technical prowess, folk audiences are generally more
concerned with an artist's stage presence.
"Folk music is tied into the entertainer's personality," Mabus
On "Retold," Mabus' personality shines in songs like
"Hopelessly Midwestern" and "Duct Tape Blues," both of
which deliver elements of storytelling and monologue.
Mabus says the lyrics to the "funny self-deprecating song"
"Hopelessly Midwestern," which include the line "Now if
you're favorite stretch of highway is flat and straight/You're hopelessly
Midwestern/And if you still think sushi looks a lot like bait/ You're
hopelessly Midwestern," have been changed over the years to keep the
"Duct Tape Blues" was first debuted in 1988 at the Ten Pound
Fiddle, Mabus says. One of his most popular tunes, Mabus has mixed feelings
about the song. "I got sick of it because it was so requested," he
says. "People would come to a concert to see just that song."
The cut on his new album is an extended version over 10 minutes long,
combining many of the retellings that have been performed over the years,
with lines like "I say this world has gone to pieces/What's a poor boy
s'posed to do?/I'm just holdin' things together, now/Singing the duct tape
"It's about life, death, duct tape and all the important
things," Mabus says.
Mabus became a great songwriter over the course of many years, evolving
from an overeager novice to an accomplished artist. "When I was a young
person, I wrote lots of lousy songs," he says. "I thought that's
what musicians were supposed to do."
He decided to put away pencil and paper through his 20s and concentrated
on learning different musical styles and techniques. A decade later, Mabus
was ready to resume writing with more confidence, because he knew what a
good song sounded like.
In addition to guitar, Mabus plucks the banjo and plays the fiddle. He
has recorded 18 albums since 1978, including 2007's "The Banjo
Today Mabus says his repertoire on stage is usually confined to either
original or traditional songs, the kind of melodies copyrighted to the
public domain. You won't hear any cute re-imaginings of recent chart-toppers
in his sets.
"I don't cover the latest hits," he says. "If you're
coming to see me, you'll hear my songs or my take on very old songs."
'Retold,' Joel Mabus
Latest Joel Mabus CD, 'Retold,' should please his devoted fans
Chris Rietz | For the
"Retold," set for release on Jan. 15, is the 18th album from
songwriter/multi-instrumental hotshot Joel Mabus on his own Fossil Records,
launched in 1987 to produce his own recordings.
It's a program of 12 Mabus originals, featuring only
Joel's voice and acoustic guitar, from the label's first decade, songs in
varying degrees lost, under-represented on CD or - most importantly - songs
that continue to thrive and evolve in his countless live shows.
"Retold," then, is not at all a rehash of old faves - the
unmistakable sign of an artist in winding-down mode - but no less than
first-time definitive recordings of some of the most popular songs in
Mabus's two-decades-and-counting career.
1988's "Naked Truth" LP, a live album, was the source for four of
the songs, including the mythic, spooky title cut, the powerful anti-war
ballad "Touch a Name on the Wall," and the sharp, playful
"Swing That Thing," interspersed with Joel's blazing guitar breaks
- and a couple of musical quotes from Duke Ellington and Bach, too.
Likely his most-requested song of them all, "Duct Tape Blues" is
here, complete with the "badoo-badoo" story (don't ask, just
listen), a broad palette of blues licks, some rumination on modern excess
and more. At a full 10 minutes and 54 seconds, Mabus may be hoping to give
his fans all the "Duct Tape" they want, once and for all.
An even better candidate for deathlessness-by-acclaim
is the dead-on hilarious "Hopelessly Midwestern," a Heartlander's
National Anthem if ever there were. It comes packaged with the tale of his
encounter with a tie-dyed
type, an opportunity for Mabus to trot out his best folksy,
Will-Rogers-meets-Garrison-Keillor oratorical style and crank it up to 10.
"I don't call it a 'best of' album," Mabus remarked wistfully,
"but I'm sure there will be some who call it that." In the notes
he acknowledges the old bromide that a songwriter's works are his children,
and indeed, the 12 songs on "Retold" have grown up tall and
strong, and done well for themselves. For those seeking an introduction to
this acclaimed, multi-talented artist, or longtime fans who want THE Joel
album, this is it - "best of" or not.
Chris Rietz works at Elderly Instruments in
. His reviews appear every other week in Lansing State Journal's What's
The Banjo Monologues Reviews
PENGUIN EGGS MAGAZINE Autumn 2007 Issue 35
Mabus introduces this CD with an accompanied monologue about the banjo
“I don’t know if the world needs another banjo record” he says “but
I do” and then he goes on to say “There are a dozen different ways
to tune a banjo and all of them are wrong”. What follows is an amazing
mixture of songs, tunes and stories about the banjo and Joel Mabus’s
experience as teacher, banjo player and appreciator of the instrument and
the music. Mabus reaches with superb taste into old time music to pick the
tunes for this recording. He is such a fine interpreter of this music that
some of the old hillbilly standards, which I first heard and learned during
the ’60’s folk scare, and which over the years I’d come to regard as
passé, achieve new life in the hands of this man. The playing and singing
are magnificent and the story telling informative and fun. If you love banjo
music this is a disc for you.
By Mitch Podolak
CD review: 'The Banjo Monologues,' by Joel Mabus Mabus delivers yet
another original album with 'Banjo Monologues'
By Chris Rietz | For the Lansing State Journal 3/29/2007
The banjo has "flirted with showbiz now and then, but mostly it's
played in kitchens and back porches. Now to me that makes the five-string a
So begins "The Banjo Monologues," fully the 17th album from
Joel Mabus, and the 14th on his own Fossil Records label, slated for release
on May 1 - perhaps his most direct and intimate project yet.
Mabus's banjo-playing is a unique hybrid of the old-time, percussive,
"clawhammer" style and its modern melodic grandson, the so-called
"chromatic" style. His easy mix of both is, while not at all
showy, entirely original - a bridging of both worlds that's almost unheard
As a result, the tunes and songs are a surprisingly varied smorgasbord of
tastes: the rustic comedy of "Three Nights Drunk," 19th-century
ragtime with "Whistling Rufus," even an original, the darting
"Dragonfly" ("my wife's favorite"). And for anyone who
thinks the banjo is only for happy stuff, Joel finds the heart of darkness
in the murder ballad "Willow Garden," a particularly chilling
example of an already gory genre.
Note too that Mabus doesn't shy from what could be called standard
material: "John Henry," "Roll Down the Line,"
"Cripple Creek." Mabus is that rare artist who can bring old
chestnuts to life not by making them exotic, but by doing the opposite:
finding the pulse in the old songs, by understanding them in a way that few
But the best moments, the stuff that makes his 17th album fresh, are the
"monologues," seven of them.
Here Joel talks about the banjo, its mysteries, about an 80-year-old
student he once had, but most of all about his own southern Illinois
parents, their siblings and in-laws who made a living as
"hillbilly" musicians during the Depression.
All of this is told in a slow-paced, rhythmic, folksy style that's more
than just affectation or schtick; it's simply the way these tales should
want to be told. Think of Garrison Keillor; or better yet, "Alice's
Restaurant," in which Arlo Guthrie sounds more Okie than his own
father. It's connecting the music - and himself - to a rich and cherished
past, and "The Banjo Monologues" is accordingly less about
showbiz, and more like the porch or the kitchen, than any banjo album you're
ever likely to hear.
[Chris Rietz is the CD buyer for Elderly Instruments, and writes reviews
for LSJ on a biweekly basis]
Early reviews from the Internet:
Also don't miss
Joel Mabus' cd. Another great one.
Joel gets it right every time.
Every cd is different and never a dull moment any of his cds.
Roz Larman Folkscene Radio
posting to FOLKDJ-L
The CD is a grand tribute to the banjo and to old-time music. Modern
audiences may not understand why "hillbilly" music was so popular
in its day. Early record producers gave the style the "hillbilly"
moniker, which unfortunately created an image that has detracted from the
music. In "The Banjo Monologues", Joel celebrates the true beauty
and significance of the music, enabling modern audiences to understand the
connection the music had with its audiences. Listening to the CD from
beginning to end is a unique experience. I imagine this what Mark Twain or
Garrison Keillor would sound like if they played the banjo. "The Banjo
Monologues" helps cement Joel Mabus reputation as an artist.
Joel Mabus is the Joe Dimaggio of the folk music world - a virtuoso who
can make the toughest plays appear effortless. His performances are
memorable and he leaves the audience with the feeling that they have spent
an evening with a good friend or long-lost relative. His charm, intelligence
and skill are evident in his inviting style.
[Portion of blog posted by RON OLESKO Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Co-host of "Traditions" at WFDU, Fordham University Radio]
I have an embarrasingly high stack of CDs that need to be reviewed for
our radio show- so many appealing CDs that choosing which to ignore for a
while and which to listen to is almost painful.
But when the new Mabus CD hit the "In" Box yesterday, it went
straight into the CD player.
It's nearly impossible to praise Joel's contributions to folk music too
highly. A master of a number of instruments who communicates the nuances of
each, an artful, profound and often funny songwriter whose songs will far
outlive him, a masterly performer, and overall one of the true champions of
traditonal folk music.
This new CD is going to win over people who have up to this point failed
to enjoy the banjo, and is going to thrill people who enjoy Joel's stories.
I'm particularly glad that those stories are accompanied by tasteful banjo
backup, allowing me to program it on-air more than I would if they were
straight spoken pieces.
I could go on, but need to get back to reviewing CDs!
PS I have no affiliation with Joel, just an admiration for his talent and
the use to which he has devoted it.
Mel DeYoung, folk music programmer at WPSU, Penn State U.
posting to FOLKDJ-L
No doubt you have heard of "The Vagina Monologues". If that
introduction has grabbed your attention then your attention should be
grabbed by a most brilliant CD that has come down the old pike. A CD by a
true virtuoso of many instruments. Happily we have something that could now
also be on the stage---"The Banjo Monologues".
Joel Mabus has come up with a most brilliant piece of work. This CD
consists of 18 tracks of traditional music and some truly colorful and
insightful intros to many of the tracks. Tales of family, of music, and just
some great philosophical thoughts. One insight has to do with how a teacher
can also be a student. One of the most moving tracks on the CD. It is about
as close as you are going to get to seeing Joel Mabus in concert.
If you have ever wondered what was the precursor to Grand Ole Opry you
will find out here. If you ever wondered what instrument is his
favorite---and why--you will find out. Also which one he would want on a
desert island---hint: forget bad banjo jokes.
If you ever wanted to hear some great family tales with traditional songs
as background it is on this CD. In addition there are great traditional
pieces, including, Wondrous Love, John Henry's Hammer, and so many more.
You really have to travel far and wide to find a more intriguing artist
who can play the many instruments he does. Guitar, Mandolin, Banjo and never
forget one of his greatest instruments of all----his voice. Deep, resonant,
and his persona engulfs the audience. Be it a live one or one on a CD that
will make you think you are at a Joel Mabus concert.
Bill Hahn - Program Notes (Traditions, WFDU)
from Bill Hahn's blog
Lansing State Journal November 24, 2005
Joel Mabus delivers a light,
lyrical disc with 'Parlor Guitar'
Review By Chris Rietz | For the
As Joel Mabus himself points out, the title of his new CD, "Parlor
Guitar" - the 16th on his own Fossil label - has two meanings. The
first refers to the small- bodied steel-string guitars used in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries, whose intimate voice and balanced tone made them
ideal for fingerstyle playing.
The other is that the album itself was recorded in a Victorian-era parlor -
the one that houses Arcadia Recording in
. This is no re-creation, though; it's more that these tunes, with their
simplicity, durability and emotional heft, presented in this unaffected way,
are a perfect match for the eminently musical Mabus.
As a result, "Parlor Guitar" is lyrical,
light on its feet, captivating and in the end thoroughly listenable, in a
way that precious few fingerstyle guitar albums ever are. As listeners will
quickly note, Mabus's rep as a top-flight picker is well-deserved, but his
depth of understanding, his willingness to let great songs sing in their own
voice, is much more rare.
With one surprise exception, the CD is all
instrumental, but it is very much an album of songs. A serious songwriter
himself, Mabus is drawn to the Tin Pan Alley craftsmen of a century or so
ago, whose target audience was vaudeville, the Broadway stage - or the
Dixieland-ed to death for decades, "After You've
Gone" seems rejuvenated in Mabus's wistful treatment. A medley of four
early hymns is an album highlight, while ragtime - in full roar in those
days - tips in with "Tiger Rag."
Joel's playing is informed by a traditional singer's
sensibility - meaning that he has a nose for where these familiar melodies
came from and how they've come to belong to everyone. It's more than just
having done his homework, although the sleeve notes are a delight to read -
as much as anything, "Parlor Guitar" is a showcase for how that
adds depth to one's grasp of the tunes, what they mean and how they should
50 #1 Spring 2006 p 120
is an extraordinary musician. He is a fine flat-picking guitarist,
clawhammer banjoist and songwriter. With Parlor Guitar he
demonstrates his abilities as an arranger for finger-style solo guitar.
The title is twofold. Parlor music was in its heyday in the early 20th
Century when vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley ruled popular music. More
specifically, the parlor guitar is a small bodied instrument most suited for
intimate performances in the home. Joel uses just such an instrument on this
CD, which gives it an authentic warmth and immediacy not achievable by a
modern dreadnaught or jumbo sized instrument.
As you listen to Parlor Guitar casually you are treated to a great
collection of tunes, many of which are rather well known from parents' or
grandparents' piano benches. Most of the selections are standards, including
"You Made Me Love You" from James V. Monaco, "I'm Just Wild
About Harry" by Eubie Blake and "Avalon" by Vincent Rose with
AI Jolson and Giacomo Puccini (yes, that Puccini!). Only with closer
inspection does Joel's immense talent become apparent. He has taken and
rearranged tunes that were never intended for the guitar and made them each
a tour de force of guitar virtuosity. A lesser player would be justly proud
to have any of these arrangements in his repertoire but Joel has over 20!
A good example of this level of virtuosity is Nick La
Roca's "Tiger Rag” from
1917.Originally recorded by Nick and his Original New Orleans Jass Band in
1918, it has about six different parts until the listener is treated to the
"Hold That Tiger" motif. The entire recording is like that, just
amazing. Do yourself a favor (and maybe your parents as well) and enjoy the
amazing guitaristics of Joel Mabus's Parlor Guitar. -TD
Willow Tree Reviews
SING OUT Vol.
48 #3 Fall 2004 p 142.
Joel Mabus Golden Willow Tree Fossil 1504
Very quietly and under way too many people's radar, Joel Mabus has spent
the past 25 years building one of the most impressive bodies of work
spanning both traditional and contemporary folk music. He's a fine singer,
has a virtuoso's command of the guitar and banjo (and fiddle, which he
doesn't play on this particular album), has a deep repertoire of traditional
ballads, old-time music and blues, and is a superb songwriter whose
compositions are well-informed by the traditions and traditional songs he's
Like many of his past recordings, Golden Willow Tree seamlessly mixes
traditional songs with Joel's original material. The title song, a variant
of the more familiar "Golden Vanity," is a long a cappella ballad
that Joel performs magnificently, letting the story unfold almost
cinematically as the verses go by. His version of "Study War No
More," which incorporates the familiar "Down By The
Riverside" with "Walk In Jerusalem" seems particularly
relevant at this point in contemporary history, as does his rewrite of the
traditional "Ruben" into a contemporary allegory about politics
and class struggle in the Bush era.
Not all of Joel's songs deal with weighty subjects. "Spoon River and
You" is a very pretty, summertime love song, while in "The Bird's
Alphabet," he cleverly finds a bird for each of the 26 letters. Other
great songs include "Ride Away Easy," which captures the scene of
a cowboy ready to ride into the sunset and "Noe's Dove," whose
subtext reflects a search for inner peace and spiritual fulfillment.
Joel's three instrumentals, on both guitar and banjo, are also a delight.
This is a solo recording with no sidemen and no overdubs. None are at all
Bluegrass Unlimited [September 2004 Issue]
JOEL MABUS - GOLDEN WILLOW TREE Fossil Records 1504
Joel Mabus is a talented singer, guitarist, songwriter, clawhammer banjoist, and also fiddler, though he does not fiddle on this recording. He mixes traditional tunes, such as the medley "Sally Goodin In The Alley With Sugar In The Gourd," "Speed The Plow," the title cut, and "Study War No More," with his fine original songs and tunes, "The Last Of June," "Papa Caught A Catfish," "Spoon River And You," "Banjo Ala Turk," "The Bird's Alphabet," "Noe's Dove," "Ride Away Easy," and "Crossing The Ohio." But the high point for this reviewer is Joel's banjo treatment of the traditional "Ruben," for which he writes new and very apt lyrics, which turn Ruben into a ruthless corporate manipulator.
The CD opens with a clawhammer instrumental, "The Last Of June." Mabus's playing is clear, crisp, and precise with a warm round tone. "Papa Caught A Catfish" is fingerpicked blues. The "Sally..." medley is more tasteful clawhammer with vocals. "Spoon River" is a nostalgic ballad. "Speed The Plow" is fingerpicked. "Golden Willow Tree" is sung a capella in Mabus's gravelly but wistful voice. Bird lovers and children will love "The Bird's Alphabet," another a capella song with a bird and a line for each letter. "Ride Away Easy" is a modern cowboy song. "Crossing The Ohio" is an exquisite guitar tribute to Stephen Foster with appropriate melodic references.
Joel Mabus is one of the most creative musicians rooted in traditional music. You never know what kind of arrangement he will use, and he continues to both surprise and delight on this recording. If you are not already a fan of his music, this CD will make you one.
Lansing State Journal
Published May 13, 2004
"Golden Willow Tree," Joel Mabus
By Chris Rietz For the Lansing State Journal
Joel Mabus' new CD, "Golden Willow Tree," has such a classic,
timeless feel that one is surprised to discover all but a few tracks are
originals. But this CD, perhaps more than any of his many recordings,
exemplifies Mabus' grasp of traditional music as a living thing - it's
always been impossible to distinguish the proverbial roots from the new
It's only the man's voice, his finger-picked guitar and clawhammer banjo,
and while Mabus is a world-class instrumentalist - and his depth and mastery
of style have made him a fine, effective singer - "Tree" has
higher ambitions than to overwhelm.
His treatment of traditional songs here is revealing. Both the title
track and "Ruben" are widely known but often obscure in meaning;
Mabus instinctively finds the heart in both songs, sharply focusing each
tale with the directness of the best storytellers. Nor does he shy from
underscoring the old stories' relevance to today's headlines.
But the original stuff rules the album. "Ride Away Easy" is a
poignant rewrite of "Old Paint," with an original verse left
intact. The gorgeous "Noe's Dove," with its hymn-book phrasing and
pentatonic banjo melody, could easily pass for 200 years old. Conversely,
the wildly original "Banjo Ala Turk," which sounds like an
Egyptian version of "Old Joe Clark," should suffice to confound
the traditionalists while delighting everyone else.
Of special note is the sound quality of this self-produced project, which
is nothing less than luscious. The intimacy of Joel's voice, and the
richness and subtlety of the instruments - and the hands playing them - have
much to do with the deceptively low-key power of "Golden Willow
Mabus will launch the CD locally at a benefit concert for Habitat for
Humanity Lansing. It's at 8 p.m. Saturday in Lansing Community College's
Dart Auditorium, 500 N. Capitol Ave., downtown.
Chris Rietz works at Elderly Instruments in Lansing. His reviews appear
every other week in What's On. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thumb Thump Reviews
Joel Mabus works an acoustic beat far from any highway. His new
collection of standards (“Frankie and Albert,” “Big Rock Candy
Mountain”) and originals (“Shake Them Hard Luck Blues,” “Struttin’
to Tootsie’s”) hits the mark –Instrumentals “Red Dog Rag” and
“The Creeper” are packed with mind-blowing runs and rythms; even the
vocal tracks have there share of incredible instrumental flourishes. And
Mabus’ weathered voice is a great folk-blues instrument. Just the move
from free time to a steady meter leading into “East St. Louis” is a
thing of beauty. Named for its
fingerpicking style, the exquisitely recorded Thumb Thump (Fossil
1402) is irresistible in a Mississippi John Hurt way – unless your blues
have to be all low-down, all the time, you should love it.
Unlimited January 2003, pp88, 89
nothing like the sound of a guitar. Not only is it extremely versatile, but
it’s the perfect instrument to accompany the human voice.
Then again sometimes all you want to hear is ten elegant fingers
bouncing melodically and rhythmically over six steel strings.
Thump” is just what the doctor ordered. Joel Mabus has put together a solo
album that takes listeners on a tour of mostly familiar blues and ragtime
standards, plus four originals that sound as beautifully aged and timeworn
as the standards, so well does he know his genres.
There are no studio musicians, no harmony singers, just Mabus’s
rich, deep, classy, fingerpicked guitar as it lays down a syncopated,
winding path for his vibrant, earthy voice, perfect for delivering the
wrong-side-of-town stories that have made the blues and ragtime such solid
cornerstones of American Music.
the thirteen tracks are Mabus originals, blending seamlessly with the likes
of “Frankie And Albert,” “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” and
“What Kind Of Pants Does A Gambler Wear.” Instrumentals are delightful – “The Creeper” slinks in
and tiptoes around, while “Stuttin’ To Tootsie’s” is a peacock-proud
parade down the boulevard. Liner
notes are a wealth of information about the songs, Mabus, and the river
country of his youth.
Listening to “Thumb Thump” may transcendentally transport you into a
speak-easy, or maybe a dark corner of your neighborhood bar. There’s a guy
and his guitar, playing for his own enjoyment in the dim light, but you get
caught up in the melodies, the tough lyrics, and somehow it makes you feel a
bit better. You watch as his fingers pick out intricate melodies, his thumb
thumping out the rhythm. You listen to his roughened voice as it floats
above the din … and you smile.
Dirty Linen Feb/March
’03 #104 p61
Making the most of his right thumb, as well as his other nine fingers,
the always-affable singer/guitarist Joel Mabus has recorded a delightful
kick-off-your-shoes-and-sit-back collection of rhythmic old-time country
blues and ragtime.
With his easy going, slightly gruff voice and smooth fingerpicking, Mabus
blends his recollections of the St. Louis street singers he heard as a child
with a stylistic nod to old bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and country
pickers like Doc Watson. He mixes his honest arrangements of standards like
"Frankie and Albert" and "East St Louis" with some
breezy original ragtime instrumentals like "Red Dog Rag" and
"Struttin' to Tootsie's" along with the traditional blues
spiritual "Paul and Silas" and the hobo's yarn "Big Rock
All are played with affection and skill. The live-in-studio production adds
to the friendly, informal feel. (TN)
Sing Out! Vol. 46 #3 Fall 2002 pp132-133
to go to the SINGOUT website.
How does he do it? Recording after recording, Joel Mabus manages to produce fresh and delightful material combining traditional songs and his own firm grasp of song craftsmanship. He does it with little or no musical support outside of his own mastery of guitar, fiddle, mandolin and banjo.
On Thumb Thump, Joel turns his talents to ragtime and blues and sticks with acoustic guitar and voice. The title refers to the steady rhythm and right hand guitar technique required to create these styles and Joel's obvious delight and control of these genres comes through on every track.
There are four original compositions on Thumb Thump, but the bulk of the recording draws from folk and blues traditions. Prepare yourself, however, for some well-researched and creative interpretations of songs you thought you knew. Joel's healthy philosophy of respecting and adding to the tradition is what makes Thumb Thump so unique. His versions of "Brady," "Frankie and Albert," " Paul and Silas," and especially "What Kind of Pants Does a Gambler Wear" are great examples of this.
No fancy production here; just a superb musician and connoisseur of old time music sharing his joy with anyone lucky enough to listen.
Six Of One
of One, the old saying goes, a half-dozen of the other. In this instance, that
means six originals by multi-instrumentalist Joel Mabus and six traditional
pieces. Switching between contemporary pieces and timeworn ones, like
"Old Smokey" and "Careless Love," provides a fun mix that
keeps the listener listening.
There's a deeply moving version of "Old
Baggum," a mysterious piece filled with elliptical lyrics carried along
by a string of minor-key banjo notes. Old Baggum, with his sword and pistol by
his side, hunts for a wild boar that kills men and drinks their blood. Mabus
controls the drama like a master storyteller, and when he follows his tale
with the instrumental "Toss the Feathers," he provides a breathing
space that allows the story time to settle deep into the listener's
consciousness. Perhaps the oddest though most enjoyable song on the album is
"Little Baby Lindberg." This darkly humorous piece begins with,
"Little baby Lindberg, never saw it coming," then chronicles a
number of historical disasters: John Jacob Astor boards the Titanic, Lincoln
goes to the theater, and Elvis spends his last few minutes in the bathroom.
Mabus suggests, in this most creative of putdown songs, that the person he's
singing to, like these historical figures, will get theirs one day.
such dark moments, the album ends on a happy note with the upbeat "Back
Porch of Glory" and a jaunty version of "Don't Let Your Deal Go
Down." Six of One serves as a fine intro to Mabus and will be welcomed by
his fans. ~ Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr., All Music Guide
here to go to the "BU"
Bob Allen, reviewer
Six Of One
The latest release from Joel Mabus, a popular figure on
the national folk and grass roots music circuits who has often shared the bill
with musical soul mates like John Prine and Greg Brown, is a real gem.
"Six Of One" is full of masterful songwriting, homespun wit and
wisdom, fine picking, and some amazingly fresh interpretations of old
Above all else, Mabus, with his warm, contemplative
baritone (which often seems to convey an underlying wink and grin) and his
inventive songwriting, manages to probe the recesses of the human condition
using familiar, down-home images in vivid originals like "School For
Love" and "Virus On The Town."
These same musical gifts enable Mabus (who is
accomplished on both guitar and banjo and is joined here by Peter Ruth on
harmonica and Don Stiernberg on mandolin) to take timeworn, familiar classics
like "Old Smokey," "The Cowboys' Barb'ry Allen,"
"Balm In Gilead," and the shuffly-bluesy "Careless Love"
and subtlety recast them so you feel like you're hearing them for the very
By the same token, Mabus's original compositions like
"Little Baby Lindberg" and "Back Porch Of Glory" so
perfectly meld contemporary wit and insight with traditional song stylings
that it's easy to imagine they were written 50 or 100 years ago.
All these ingredients make it amply clear why Mabus's
star continues to rise on the international touring circuit. (Fossil Records,
P.O. Box 306, Portage, MI 49081, E-mail: <email@example.com>.) BA
to go to the Singout website.
Rich Warren, reviewer
Six Of One
The unsaid half of the title, "half dozen of another" refers to the even split of
this CD between original and traditional songs. Mabus follows each original song
with a related or inspirational traditional song. Thus, he follows his "School For
Love" with the traditional "Careless Love." The former laments the contemporary state of relationships, while the latter
sings of the same problem in the past.
Mabus' original songs all provoke thought.
They're some of the darkest songs he's written, exploring the ugly underbelly of
society. "Little Baby Lindberg" uses historical situations to illustrate that we
cannot control our destinies, while "Virus On The Town" continues the theme, focusing
on the plague of guns. Mabus follows "Virus" with the soothing traditional "Balm
In Gilead," which appropriately contains the line "to make the wounded whole." He
also includes "The Cowboy's Barb'ry Allen," the transposition of the Child ballad to the American Wild West. Art Thieme
originally turned up this gem, but Thieme's version has been out-of-pressing for many
More singer-songwriters should learn and perform from Mabus' perspective of mixing originals with traditional
songs. Each compliments the other making for a more interesting and engaging
recording. Mabus sings with a pleasing voice delightfully accompanied by Peter "Madcat"
Ruth on harmonica and Don Stiernberg on mandolin. This simple but tasty accompaniment serves the songs well. Six Of One
combines the best of both worlds, good songwriting with songs that have stood the
test of time, performed with intelligence and honesty.
I'd like to hear dozens more
recordings like this one from other contemporary singer-songwriters.
to go to the Dirty Linen website
August/September '01 #95 page 86
Joel Mabus Six of One
[Fossil 1301 (2001)]
The title of Joel Mabus' latest collection refers to six self-penned originals and six classic folk songs.
This all blends nicely together for two reasons: Originals like "Back Porch of
Glory" sound like classic folk songs, and traditionals like "Old Baggum/ Toss the Feathers" are given fresh
interpretations. One also shouldn't miss the more modern "Little Baby Lindberg," filled with biting black
humor. Six of One has a great acoustic sound and should satisfy the soul of the
traditional folk lover.
Newsletter of the California Coast Music Camp
Six of One Flies the Folk Flag High
By Jayme Kelly Curtis
Minimal instrumentation gives Joel Mabus's husky, fluid voice ample room to stretch out and luxuriate on his new CD, "Six of One" (Fossil
Records). "Six of One" features six Mabus originals interlaced
traditional tunes like "Careless Love," "Balm In Gilead,"
and "Don't Let
Your Deal Go Down." It's a concept that is well thought out and
executed, all the way from song selection through the clean and
professional package design.
In a nod to Mabus's well-known wry humor, all of the odd numbered tunes
are originals. Fans of Mabus's darkly comic songs will appreciate tunes
like "Little Baby Lindberg," with quirky lyrics like "You're
You're so screwed." This collection is a little more weighted toward
serious topics, such as those expressed in "School for Love," and
Porch of Glory," which I initially mistook for one of the classic cuts.
The idyllic "Storybook Romance" grew out of a songwriting
by Mabus at CCMC 2000. According to Mabus, "The assignment was to use
something that scared us as children as a starting point." Mabus's
juvenile terror of the flying monkeys and green-skinned witch of "The
Wizard of Oz" is remarkably transformed here into a song that sounds
like it could be as easily at home on a disc of Nat 'King' Cole
classics. My personal favorite of the Mabus originals is the
Django-esque "My Ramona," with its snakey mandolin accompaniment and
percussive guitar parts.
All of the tracks feature Mabus on one or two guitars or clawhammer
banjo. Six tracks feature Don Stiernberg on mandolin, known for his
association with the late Jethro Burns. Five tracks feature Peter
"Madcat" Ruth on harmonica. I had the privilege of seeing
harmonica in the late 70s with Dave Brubeck and was amazed at his
ability to hold several harps in his hand and flip them around to
accommodate the key changes in Brubeck's music. His contribution to
"Six of One" is tasteful, spare and precisely what's needed to
Mabus's richly textured voice without competing with it.
On the 'even' side of the disc, Mabus breathes new life into well-known
traditional classics and gives airtime to less familiar works. His
selection of lesser-known versions of songs like "Barbary Allen,"
the use of DADGAD tuning on "Old Smokey," are brilliant innovations
surprise and delight. Mabus waits until the last couple of tracks to
throw on some sweet vocal harmonies. More of this kind of harmony would
have leant a little more texture at the opening tracks of the CD, a tiny
criticism of a delightful album that flies the folk banner high. You
can buy this or any of Joel's other CDs by visiting his web site at
www.joelmabus.com; or by writing PO Box
306, Portage, MI 49081.
How Like The Holly reviews
How Like the Holly
Eric Freedman, Michigan Folk Notes Nov. 99
Versatile singer-songwriter Joel Mabus of Portage is back, just in time
for the holidays with his first seasonal collection, the solo CD "How
Like The Holly." It's quintessential Mabus, sometimes passionate,
sometimes quietly moving, sometimes insightful, with a bit of humor and
plenty of masterful banjo and acoustic guitar playing. The CD is a mix of 12
(one for each night of Christmas) original and traditional vocals and
instrumentals, some with his own arrangements or new lyrics.
"When the nights are longest and days are coldest comes the time for
telling stories," Mabus writes. "The time for fire against the
chill, light against the dark, bread against the hunger - we huddle close
and swab our fears with our finest and oldest comforts."
That's what we find here, comforts, stories and music against the chill.
For example he wrote new words for the old English folk song "The
Friendly Beasts," a simple tale about the sacrifices made by animals in
the manger on Christmas Eve when, by legend, animals can speak. "Let's
Do Christmas Right" is a heart-felt defense of simple Christmas
traditions coupled with characteristic Mabus satire on the less seemly
aspects of the season. "Now all the mistletoe is plastic/ Just as phony
as Santa's beard/ And this lowfat eggnog substitute/ Is tasting just a
little bit weird… So shut off the TV - unplug the phone/ Hey leave that
internet connection alone! / For once let's have a silent night/ Let's do
The title cut, "How Like The Holly," centers on the symbols of
winter long before there was a holiday called Christmas: "How like the
frost on the evergreen tree,/ How like the deer running wild, running free,/
How like Orion, arising so bold,/ How like the story bound to be told,/ How
like the winter that promises spring,/ How like the carol we sing."
Put this CD under the tree or in your stocking.
Dec. 99 (Susan Hartman)
On this warm and charming CD, a worthy addition to any Christmas
collection, Mabus presents the listener with 12 melodies. Two were specially
written for this collection: The flowing and poetic "How Like The
Holly" is a celebration of the winter solstice, and the scathing &
irreverent - or is it the height of reverence from which he writes? -
"Let's Do Christmas Right" could easily be adopted as the theme
song for the "Alternative Christmas" movement. His adaptations of
three traditional carols ("Children Go Where I Send Thee,"
"The Cherry Tree Carol" and "The Friendly Beasts") make
these mildly familiar pieces even more fresh. Add some fine pickin' and a
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem and you've found the perfect blend of the
old and the new, the relaxing and the stimulating. A delightful gift from a
Lansing State Journal
By Chris Rietz
"So shut off the TV; unplug the phone / hey - leave that internet
connection alone! / For once let's have a silent night / Let's do Christmas
right," sings Joel Mabus on his unique and beguiling holiday CD
"How Like the Holly."
It's something of a quiet album, more powerful for its understatement.
But more importantly, Mabus brings a clear-eyed sense of tradition, of
connectedness to the past that rings just the right bell for the season in a
way that few other Christmas recordings do.
As a singer, he has a deeply rooted grasp of traditional style and the
ability to deliver a song directly and with conviction. His world-class
skills on guitar and banjo are harnessed, as always, in service to the song.
Among the album highlights are the black hymn "Children Go Where I
Send Thee," a ragtime guitar version of the 1857 song "One Horse
Open Sleigh" (aka "Jingle Bells"), and an Appalachian-style
rendering of "The Cherry Tree Carol," an apocryphal tale of Mary,
Joseph and the unborn Jesus.
Particularly memorable is the musical setting of Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow's Civil War-era "Christmas Bells," a poem of yearning
for peace in dark times that's so powerful (and eerily timely), one wonders
why it's not reprised more often.