Banjo fans and lovers of old-timey Appalachian music will know Nora Brown well. For those that don’t, here’s a quick overview. Currently 16 years of age, the Brooklyn-based banjo prodigy has been hoovering up plaudits since the 2019 release of her first album, Cinnamon Tree. Her second release, Sidetrack My Engine, followed as recently as September, 2021, meaning that her latest release – Long Time to be Gone – will be her second in 12 months. If that’s a surprise, it shouldn’t be: the clamour for Nora Brown’s music is loud and strong. She tends to favour vinyl releases, and the first two have sold out. As one fan (daffyjeeps) has already written on the new record’s Bandcamp page, a full three months before it arrives, “Nora is a gift”. On the strength of our first five listens, daffyjeeps is not wrong.
With Long Time to be Gone, Nora Brown has spoilt us. Whereas most long players clock in around 10-12 tracks these days, she gives us 16 gleaming performances. Recorded in Saint Ann’s church, home of the Brooklyn Folk Festival, the virtuoso took her four beloved banjos into various nooks and crannies to find the right acoustics for each setting. The result is beautiful. While she is the only human on the record, much like we heard on Sam Sweeney’s Solo, the church becomes a performer in its own right. Take, for instance, the gentle beauty of ‘Flowery Girls’, recorded on her Snake Head Banjo and learnt from the playing of Middle Tennesseean, Omer Forster. Brown’s fingers are light and nimble on the strings, but you can hear the kind presence of the stone church as it sings her waterfall melodies back to her.
The songs and tunes that Brown has chosen for Long Time to be Gone are all traditional, tending to favour the music of Appalachia, Kentucky and Tennessee. It’s a mostly instrumental album, which is good news for anyone who likes to sit, slack-jawed, as she whizzes about her fretboards, but the songs that feature her refreshing, unostentatious vocals are gems. ‘Little Satchel’, learnt from the singing of Fred Cockerham and Riley Baugus, is a case in point. I was determined not to harp on about her tender years in this review, but it’s hard not to be wowed by this performance. Take a listen to the final 30 seconds in particular, just before she brings it all to an end with a stifled giggle. If she can do that on a banjo at the age of 16 and make it seem so effortless… it’s almost frightening to imagine what she might be pulling from those strings in the not-too-distant future.
The highlights, then? In short, Long Time to be Gone is an album packed to the rafters with old-timey gorgeousness – it’s a veritable tradfolker’s dream. Listen out for the pinch harmonics of ‘Miner’s Dream’ bouncing off those church vaults; revel in the moment, about a minute into ‘Southern Texas’, when her outrageous fingers suddenly take flight; pull on your earphones and tune in to the deep rumble of her Grandfather Banjo as it underpins the British traditional, ‘Jenny Put the Kettle On’ (‘Polly Put the Kettle On’ [Roud 7899]), and warms the depths of your belly; lose yourself in the peculiar mystery that tugs at the melody of ‘Wade’s Tune’, learnt from Mac Traynham of Floyd, Virginia, who could not separate it from its pervasive, “lonesome feeling”. It’s a profoundly moving experience to hear a musician so deeply ensconced in these ancient tunes, these glimours from the past, as she takes quiet refuge in a cloistered place away from the wild city around her.
Nora Brown describes Long Time to be Gone as, “a sort of second take on the [songs and tunes] that didn’t make the last project”. Are we listening to cast-offs, then? Scoop your jaws from the floor, people. On the strength of this album, we’ll take whatever she is offering.
Pre-order Nora Brown’s ‘Long Time to be Gone’ from her Bandcamp page now. The album is released on August 26th, 2022. For more information on Nora Brown, head to norabrownmusic.com.