Vivacious drive and charismatic magnetism
From Florida, Mary Z. Cox is an accomplished player, teacher (and collector) of banjos and mountain dulcimers. At last count, she has 17 banjos and 12 dulcimers. Her seventh album, “Girl with the Banjo Tattoo” is a solo project with Mary playing one or two instruments on each of the 14 tracks. On one cut, “Chickens Crowin’ at Midnight,” she is joined by Ellen Sheppard on banjolin. Mary’s instruments of choice appear to be a John Bowlin 1865 fretless banjo that is played on that song and two others (Pretty Polly, Needed Time), and her Goldstone 5-string cello banjo that appears in the mix of five songs. That instrument provides a sweet, mournful sound, and I wonder if she also has a bass banjo in her collection. It would no doubt be a killer to play due to its size. On various other cuts, we hear Mary’s banjos with and without frets, ones with open back or resonator, and mountain dulcimers of mahogany, cedar, spruce and cherry. Quite novel, the album opens with “Last Chance” played on a cigar box banjo built by Joe Masel. Try to use a discerning ear to hear the subtle variations among her instruments.
With such a rawboned approach, it’s a tad unfortunate that she also simplifies a few of the fiddle tune melodies and employs few variations in her short 2-3 minute song arrangements. She adds her guitar on “Star of County Down,” and I would’ve enjoyed hearing a few more instruments (e.g. guitar, bass, fiddle) for occasional accompaniment. Despite these minor criticisms, the crowning moments for the “Girl with the Banjo Tattoo” are when regular and cello banjos are employed together (Chinkapin Hunting, Gaspe Reel), or when banjo and dulcimer provide bouncy melodic interplay together (Sweet ‘Bama, Goodbye Girls I’m Going to Boston). I’m used to hearing “Gaspe Reel” at a slightly faster tempo, but Mary’s is a nice, rhythmically expressive rendition.
Besides her instrumental proficiency, Mary Z. Cox is also an award-winning singer so I was surprised that she didn’t add her voice to the project on such numbers as Scarborough Fair, Morning Has Broken, or Pretty Polly. That wasn’t her vision, however, for this spare front porch instrumental setting of clawhammer banjo and mountain dulcimer. I guess I would’ve preferred a more raucous and fuller sound similar to that of Bob Flesher’s old-time minstrel and clawhammer banjo albums.
The album’s title brings some intrigue with it. I wonder if it was inspired by the “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the movie and/or best-selling mystery by Stieg Larsson. That novel is a compelling, well-woven tale that succeeds in transporting the reader to rural Sweden for a good crime story. In similar fashion, “Girl with the Banjo Tattoo” will gain plenty of traction and attention among banjoholics as it’s a well-wrought and captivating musical story that instrumentally carries us back to the old homeplace on the mountain in the mid-1800s. You’ve simply got to appreciate how the vivacious drive and charismatic magnetism of Mary Z. Cox’s banjo and dulcimer playing draw us right into her old-timey music. (Joe Ross, Sun209: The Americana Music Journal)