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The title of Brown’s new studio release The Company You Keep was originally inspired by the words of Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote): "Tell me the company you keep and I’ll tell you what you are." But it wasn’t until the project began to develop that Brown realized the title actually held two separate, but equally important, meanings for her and for her music. "I’ve been writing, recording and performing my own tunes for nearly 20 years now," Brown reflects. "And as I thought about the progression of my sound - our band's sound - I began to think about what a collaborative effort this musical journey has been. After 15 years of recording, performing and philosophizing about music with (pianist) John R Burr and (bassist) Garry West, I really wanted to draw that collaborative spirit to the forefront on this album." The Company You Keep features the musicians she has spent most of the past 15 years performing with: John R. Burr (piano), Garry West (bass), David Grisman Quintet alum Joe Craven (fiddle/mandolin/percussion) and Larry Atamanuik (drums) alongside guests John Doyle (guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Kenny Malone (drums) on a set of engaging, upbeat and melodic tunes, many of which were co-written by Brown and Burr.
The Company You Keep opens with "Crazy Ivan," a minor hoe-down with an enigmatic odd meter intro. It's a great example of the interplay of the banjo and piano. "I came up with the intro figure on the banjo but when John R played it on the piano it had a lot more power. So, even though the signature melodic idea of the tune was written on the banjo, the banjo never actually plays the hook figure."
The band offers its own take on a version of piano accordion virtuoso Martin O'Connor's The Road West. "I have been a fan of Martin's since we met at the Roisin Dubh in Galway several years ago. He gave me a copy of his latest record and I loved that tune from the first time I heard it. He recorded it in Bb and it was challenging to get that pianistic melody to lay right on the banjo. But we had a great time stretching out on our own arrangement which winds its way through 3 modulations for solos before returning to the head. Adding improvisation sections brought a very non-Irish approach to the tune but I felt like we really gave it our own twist."
The fifth track, "Under the Wire" is probably the most bluegrassy tune on the album and the first - and last - tune the band recorded for the album. "We cut a version of that tune on our first session but as we opened it up live it really took on majestic sort of Western feel and we just had to re-cut it. I really like the stately sound of the piano playing what's essentially a banjo melody on the repeat of the head. I think it gives a wonderful elegance to the tune."
According to Brown, The Company You Keep is also a tip of the hat to her approach to business as one of the co-founders of the Compass Records Group. "I co-founded Compass with Garry West the same year that I began touring with my own band so the label and the band have grown up in tandem, even though I didn’t release an album on Compass until 1998." At a time when the record business is being turned upside down, Compass Records Group has continued to grow and today boasts nearly 600 releases across the Compass, Green Linnet and Mulligan Records catalogs. "Our artistic aesthetic is very well described by the idea that the company we’ve built and sustain (both in our roster and our staff) reflects our values and musical priorities. We take a very long-tail approach to our business and feel a great sense of pride in having built a business model that is scaled to be successful with records that may only sell a few thousand units. Some of our smallest records say more about us as a label than our biggest selling records do."
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