The tradition of duo music probably goes back farther than we can know – two musicians sitting across from each other, swapping licks and songs for listeners transfixed in quiet appreciation. There’s something naturally comfortable about music that has been taken away from fancy trappings and lush surroundings, distilled down to the bare essentials. On Stuff That Works, Junior Barber and Gary Ferguson have captured the essence of this feel. Perhaps better than any instrumentalist in recent memory, Barber complements the singer’s art and plays perfectly against Ferguson’s warm baritone voice. There’s no clutter, no overplaying, no unnecessary flash as Ferguson relates the stories and plays solid rhythm while Barber fills in the cracks.
Five of the songs are Ferguson originals, reinforcing his already handsome reputation as a crafter of fine songs. There’s a healthy variety here that gives a balanced and entertaining feel across the board, from the bouncy Dear Sarah and Barber’s instrumental Chicken Feet to the reflective title cut and Ferguson’s Here I Go Again. Some, like I’ve Been All Around This World and I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight are familiar but sound fresh, while others are less well-known to the bluegrass genre (Choices for example, although this version is not quite as eerie or confessional as the George Jones version a few years ago). Particularly outstanding is their treatment of Ferguson’s well-known Last Day at Gettysburg, which has a dark, lonesome feeling that almost makes the listener believe that the song might have been written 140 years ago.
I don’t mean to lend the impression that the entire recording is dark and depressing – far from it. It’s low-key, and what could potentially lead to ear fatigue by the end of this twelve-song collection is avoided through the use of different instruments – Ferguson uses a couple different guitars and Barber four different resonator guitars – to give texture and variety to the overall sound. All in all, Stuff That Works works extraordinarily well.