Retrograss is Mike Seeger, John Hartford, and David Grsman. The band’s only album, the 1999 Retrograss (Acoustic Disc), is an inconsistent, fascinating mess: the old-timey treatment doesn’t flatter Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” quite the way it does the Beatles’ goofy “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Hartford’s mannered vocals are the disc’s most serious flaw, especially on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and the Redding tune–he often sounds like he’d rather be somewhere else.
And on “Hound Dawg,” a sparse arrangement of the Big Mama Thornton song Elvis made famous, Hartford and Grisman’s stilted enunciation comes off as almost parodic. Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” on the other hand, works fine as a Dock Boggs tune, and Berry’s “Maybellene” sounds appropriately hot-blooded propelled by the boing-boing of Seeger’s mouth harp and Hartford’s bluesy banjo–probably because Berry adapted it from a country song in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, Retrograss does just as well, if not better, when it covers folk and bluegrass tunes: Randall Hylton’s “Room at the Top of the Stairs” prickles with existential dread, Hartford’s fiddle bawling convulsively over Seeger’s obsessive single-chord banjo patterns, and standards like Earl Scruggs’s “Flint Hill Special” and Jimmy Martin’s “My Walking Shoes” practically catch fire.