British multi-instrumentalist Martin Simpson is still criminally unknown in America despite his 30-year career and dozens of excellent albums. He's equally at home with British and American traditional music, blending blues, folk, and Celtic music traditions in his work. True Stories is balanced between folk standards and new Simpson compositions with the spotlight on Simpson's impressive instrumental virtuosity and his inviting tenor vocals. Simpson's arrangement for "Look Up, Look Down" blends African, American, and Scottish traditions and incorporates themes and lyrics that are known as "500 Miles," "Lonesome Road," and other folk sources. His banjola, a banjo-mandolin hybrid, gives the tune a lonesome feeling that's as much old-time music as it is bluegrass, and the backing band includes Danny Thompson on bass and B.J. Cole on pedal steel. Simpson works his magic on "Stagolee" by returning the tale to its roots as a tale of murderous revenge. A funeral drumbeat supports Simpson's banjo and the wailing fiddle of Jon Boden while Simpson intones the tale with a subtle dramatic flair. "Sir Patrick Spense," a tale of death at sea, is one of the oldest British folk songs, a mournful, droning tale of tragedy. Simpson sings it simply and plays a guitar that tolls like a funeral bell while hurdy-gurdy and accordion provide a mournful atmosphere. Dylan used the beautiful melody of "The Wind and Rain" for "Percy's Song." Simpson sings it in its traditional form, a tale of jealousy and murder with a supernatural element as the body parts of a murdered woman are turned into a fiddle. Simpson closes his version with a solemn slide guitar solo full of affecting grace. Simpson's originals are steeped in traditional music and sound as timeless as the folk songs he sings. "One Day," a collaboration with guitarist Martin Taylor, laments the death of a child. Simpson's somber guitar and Thompson's restrained bass add to the song's gravitas. "Swooping Molly" is a Celtic-flavored instrumental piece that shows off Simpson's understated fingerpicking virtuosity with slurred notes and chiming pull-offs.
AllMusic Review by j. poet