Music from Rancho DeVille is a loveletter from across the grave. Charles Sawtelle passed away Mach 21, 1999, of complications from leukemia. The last several years of his life were spent recuperating from chemotherapy treatments and making recordings in his home studio, a small stone outbuilding called Rancho DeVille. He entrusted Laurie Lewis with the daunting task of collecting all his masters and forming them into an album.
She has produced a CD worthy of his memory.
Sawtelle was the kind of guy who did so many things well that his business card, which read “Expert,” wasn’t hyperbole. This CD reveals the breadth of his talents. Cajun tunes like “The Newz Reel” with Micheal Doucet of Beausoleais, old-time country “The Storms Are on The Ocean” by A.P. Carter with Norman Blake on vocals, a Norteno version of Woody Guthrie’s “The Ranger’s Command” where he’s joined by Flaco Jimenez, and Lefty Frizell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” with an unlikely, but perfect vocal, by Vassar Clements are just a few of the musical treats on Music From Rancho DeVille. Charles’ solos often forayed into uncharted musical territory, and this CD has a couple that rival his best. “Let’s Go Home” gives you a taste of his unique instrumental voice.
The biggest musical surprises here are Sawtelle’s original compositions. Four instrumentals with the likes of David Grisman and Sam Bush on mandolins, Vasser Clements playing fiddle, Jerry Douglas on resophonic guitar, Todd Phillips on string bass, and of course Charles on his herringbone Martin D-28, are simply stunning in their rare beauty. Remarkable because they are unpredictable, yet classic.
Charles was a serious audiophile, and his studio was stocked with great old microphones to couple with his superlative Grace eight-channel microphone preamp. If you want to hear what a vintage pre-war Martin herringbone or a Lloyd Loar F-5 mandolin really sounds like in the hands of a master, you have to have this CD. Acoustic Disc includes its usual special touches that makes their packaging special. Many of Sawtelle’s close associates, as well as musicians on the album, give insight into why Charles was special.
It’s only mid-February, but I have no doubt that this will be one of the best releases of 2001. As Charles would say, “You need this CD.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.