Brent Watkins is a ragtime pianist and preacher who hails from Cedar Rapids, IA, and the River Media release The Heroes of Parlor Town, Vol. 2, represents an expansion of the material used to illustrate a presentation he gives on the history of ragtime, and how it changed popular music in America. Scott Joplin is featured most prominently of the composers heard here, but the program stretches into the 1920s and the music of Iowa native Bix Beiderbecke. There are a couple of undiscovered gems here -- a fabulous rag composed by Cedar Rapids-based composer Gale von Kamecke Wood, and an obscure piece from 1910 entitled Sponge that represents New Orleans in times of trouble, ably and colorfully accompanied by tubist George Reida.
The precious and careful style of Joshua Rifkin vis-à-vis ragtime, particularly as it applied to the music of Scott Joplin, is not the kind of thing Watkins aspires to here -- his playing is exuberant and extroverted, and careful ears will pick up tiny finger slips here and there. In interpreting ragtime, this is not a bad thing, as realistically the tradition allows for it; it is not as if Watkins is playing Rachmaninoff here. Watkins also takes considerable, though generally restrained and acceptable, liberties with the musical texts he undertakes. His introductory essay, "The Heroes," which is presumably adapted from the text he uses in his presentations, makes some points that are somewhat historically questionable: not all minstrel shows were exclusively given by white performers, and likewise not all were considered denigrating to African-Americans. By the standards of that time, minstrelsy was a very popular form of entertainment all around. However, in his afterward, titled "Noted from the Artist," Watkins strikes a different tone, an examination of his interest in ragtime as it relates to faith that represents a unique and valuable insight not often seen in print.
The disc was supported by a grant from the Iowa Arts Council, and it is obviously intended as a publicity aid for Watkins' live presentation. The Heroes of Parlor Town, Vol. 2, has its flaws, but it is impossible to fault Watkins for them, as he has so much enthusiasm and good old-fashioned chutzpah. It may not be the best-played or best-recorded CD of ragtime ever made, but The Heroes of Parlor Town, Vol. 2, is certainly energetic, original in approach, and full of heart.