Ryan Spearman is too nice of a guy to talk dirty. His good-natured drawl and perennially laid-back air make even the obvious double-entendres of Mississippi John Hurt's "Candy Man Blues" sound almost innocent. But as the title suggests, Pain & Time is not lightweight on the lyrical themes (especially in comparison to Spearman's relatively bucolic 2011 release Get Along Home). The traditional "Death Come Creeping" is more cautionary than doomsaying, but "Bound to Lose" is as close as Spearman comes to a blues song. He inverts Woody Guthrie's slogan with a song of self-doubt and existential queries that rates as his best song to date.
Spearman's rhythmic picking on guitar and banjo dominates most of the tracks — he has an ear for both traditional folk melodies and John Fahey-esque discord — but on "Pretty Saro" he proves an adept fiddler as well, with a seesawing rhythm and a technique that favors rooted drones over complex runs. Given the bare-bones fidelity of these living-room recordings, a few of these numbers wouldn't feel entirely out of place on a Folkways compilation.
Pain & Time features a few contributions from sometimes-collaborator and current international Dust Bowl-blues playboy Pokey LaFarge. His dulcet turns on mandolin sweeten some of the midrange gruffness of the recordings, and his harmony vocals on the murder ballad "Haley Mae" are unmistakable. Spearman and LaFarge tread different enough forms of American music, but here the line between folk music and acoustic blues is made even more thin by their union. The record mixes Spearman's originals and a few covers and traditionals, but none will be more well-known in St. Louis than "Moonshiner," thanks to Uncle Tupelo's take on the song. Here, Spearman wisely charts his own course with an uptempo and major-key banjo ditty that borrows none of Jay Farrar's moody gravitas that made his recording so harrowing. And that pretty much sums up the job of the folk singer: to tell us stories and sing us songs that we foolishly thought we already knew.