When most people think of the banjo, they think of bluegrass banjo, with rolls and runs that don’t always make the most soothing sound. But the banjo has so much more to offer than that, including deep, dark tones that evoke other worlds, geographically and metaphorically. That’s the kind of banjo artists like Valerie June, Rhiannon Giddens, Birds of Chicago, and others employ. It’s also the kind the Ryan Gustafson — under his Dead Tongues moniker — sprinkles strategically throughout Unsung Passage, sidling it up right next to harmonica, guitar, bass, drums, and… wait for it… flute… you know, like all the best Americana artists do.
That’s right: It’s Molly Sarlé’s ethereal flute that makes the most — and most unexpected — appearances on the album, starting with the folk-flourished opening track, “Won’t Be Long,” which sets Gustafson’s sound somewhere between Bob Dylan and RayLand Baxter. That cut is a perfect representation of how Gustafson’s music manages to feel timeless, authentic, and organic, but not stale or overly derivative. There’s an easy lonesome in his voice and an easy lilt in his melodies. Those are huge parts of the familiarity and allure, for sure. But there’s something else going on here that makes the album immediately appealing.
If anything is a theme of Unsung Passage, it’s movement… in time and space, in life and love. Each entry serves as a musical snapshot of an ever-changing emotional and/or physical landscape. Gustafson, it must be noted, is a touring musician who travels the world with various artists and on myriad adventures. He’s the kind of guy who heads off to anywhere with a sturdy backpack and a sense of wonder, returning only after he’s worn both all the way out. Along the way, or after, he lays his observations and evolutions over melodies and rhythms — the songwriter’s scrapbook.
And therein lies the magic: Gustafson is the musical nomad we all want to know or be, wandering and wondering his way through the world. Generously — or selfishly, depending how you look at it — he’s telling our stories as much as he is his own. Look no further than “The Broken Side of People Everywhere,” if you doubt that truth.
The album’s second song, “Ebb and Flow,” introduces the mesmerizing banjo motif that drones and drives it, as well as “Thunder and Crash” and “The Giver,” two stunners that come later in the cycle. Taken as a triptych, those three songs illustrate how, in the right hands, the banjo can be at once transcendent and traditional. It can cross oceans, ages, and genres, which is exactly what the Dead Tongues do so wonderfully with Unsung Passage, as well.