Walnut Valley Occasional, December, 1998
Stephen Bennett, Harp Guitar Cimarron Rainbird Records
In case you didn't know, a harp guitar does not sound like a harp. It sounds like a guitar accompanied by acoustic bass. This unique instrument allows the artist to play conventional six string guitar and reach up to pluck alternating bass patterns on the arched extension of the guitar box which somehow structurally supports five or six lower pitched strings. The appearance of three of these strings stretched across the space created by the arch resembles the arch of a harp.
Stephen Bennett is the quintessential harp guitarist. He is widely known and respected as a master guitarist having been the only person to ever place in flatpicking and fingerpicking at the National Flatpicking Championships, claiming the fingerpicking title in 1987. Two of his compositions were recently selected for a compilation of guitar wizards called "Masters of Acoustic Guitar" on the Narada label.
"Harp Guitar," Stephen's newest release, is instrumental and features exclusively harp guitar. Two vintage Dyer instruments and one '97 Spillers instrument are used here. Dyer #l, also known as "Big Mama," was played by Stephen's great-grandfather during the 1920's in Yukon Saloons. In 1989, after two generations of non musicians, Stephen rescued "Big Mama" from obscurity in his uncle's cellar, who, after hearing him play it, gave it to him. This began Stephen's passion for the instrument and his quest to bring it to the forefront of acoustic music.
Track one is an airy, whimsical melody called "Winfield" which conjures up images of this colorful, diverse musical event. From there, Stephen whisks you away on an odyssey of style, weaving in and out of his dreamy compositions to soft jazz standards, even digging an obscure fiddle tune out of the closet (Lonesome John). A pleasant surprise is the Howard Blake melody "Walking in the Air" from the animated film The Snowman followed by the timeless classic "As Time Goes By" by Herman Huffield. Play it again, Sam...or rather, Stephen.
The engineering and mix are masterful. This is a recording that fits any mood. The arrangements allow the listener to pay close attention, and also to drift. Play it softly and kick back with a good book or turn it up really loud and go about the day.