South Florida's veteran gold-throated troubadour, Matthew Sabatella, was born to make an album such as Ballad of America. This low-key, acoustic opus is more a Folkways Smithsonian-style history lesson than a random assortment of wispy, coffee shop folk. Casual listeners, watch out: If you pay attention, you might learn something.
Ballad of America encapsulates the musical heritage of our pioneering days by reproducing eighteen traditional songs from that era, detailing the way of life on the wagon train and in the timber forest, the train yard, and the ship's harbor. Sabatella's gentle acoustic guitar and taut, elegant voice are accompanied intermittently by a host of guest musicians who play banjo, fiddle, harmonica, and even antiquated instruments such as the accordion-like concertina (courtesy of Brian Humphrey) and a Celtic hoop drum called a bodhran (courtesy of Kevin Wells).
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Nothing if not deeply humanist, these songs reveal the sober, hopeful spirit of the men and women who found fortune, romance, and danger on the open range. Lines such as "Oh husband remember that land of delight/Is surrounded by Indians that murder by night," from the sweet, wife-to-husband lament "The Wisconsin Emigrant," recall the challenges white settlers faced and the stereotypes that arose from them; while "This Old Hammer" tells the folktale of John Henry, the steel-drivin' man. With Sabatella's presence, Mario Colangelo's keeping time on the drums, and Todd Thompson's mellow backing vocals, that song is the most uptempo in the set; like any lesson on Manifest Destiny, Ballad of America tends toward the monotonous. But it's there in the title -- this ain't Rock of America.