The first song on Little Darling Pal of Mine is “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” and with it the band announces its intention to turn the listener’s clock back past 1960,when Elvis Presley released the version most of us know best, to the late 1930s, when the Carter Family recorded it. In its arrangement and performance, the band is successful. This collection of Carter Family songs does nothing to date itself to the present. This is not to say that Little Darling Pal of Mine plays the studio tricks that other retro recordings do to synthesize a dusty, archival sound. Rather, the By & By String Band’s approach to the songs themselves demonstrates its thorough understanding of the idiom that inspired the album.
For many listeners, the album will function as a showcase for lead vocalist Kiyoko McCrae. That’s probably good enough. She sings beautifully throughout, and the band’s harmonies and occasional call-and-response vocals emphasize and echo her easy, warm tone. If those listeners overlook, though, the precision and quality of the instrumental performances that provide the album’s foundation, it’s their loss. Rhythmically and melodically, the band leads us through the compositions in a way that opens up new ideas in some of the oldest songs we know.
Little Darling Pal of Mine eschews the loose, good-time feeling common to so much contemporary bluegrass in favor of casual understatement. In their approach, they manage both reserve and emotion. “This album,” the liner notes read, “is a nod to the Carter Family.” One imagines Maybelle, Sara, and AP would nod back.