South Florida's veteran, gold-throated troubador, Matthew Sabatella, was born to make an album like 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 encapsulates the musical heritage of pioneer America by reproducing 18 traditional songs from that era, detailing the way of life of the wagon train, in the timber forest, the train yard, and the ship's harbor. Sabatella's gentle acoustic guitar and taut, elegant voice is accompanied intermittently by banjo, fiddle, harmonica, and even antiquated instruments: the accordion-like concertina and Celtic hoop drum called a bodhran.
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 like 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 sterotypes that arose from them, while "This Old Hammer" tells the folk tale of John Henry, the steel drivin' man. With a trap kit keeping time and mellow backing vocals, that song is the most up-tempo in the set; like any lesson on Manifest Destiny, Ballad tends toward the monotonous. But it's there in the title -- this ain't Rock of America.
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Matthew Sabatella hosts a release party for Ballad of America at 8 p.m Friday, February 18, at Luna Star Café, 775 NE 125th St., North Miami. The show is free. Call 305-799-7123.