Wayfaring Stranger

16 Horsepower is a Gothic country-rock quartet from Denver, but their version of “Wayfaring Stranger” feels so fated, so instinctual, it spreads the South all over the American map, a dusting of damnation on wherever you might be as you listen. Edwards is a brilliant banjo player: His sense of rhythm is as irresistible as it is elusive. On “Wayfaring Stranger,” brilliance means the ability to play as if the player is learning the strings as he makes the notes. You can imagine the singer as the hero of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, the soldier on his trek back to his North Carolina home as the Confederate Army falls apart at the end of the Civil War, stumbling over an abandoned, half-busted banjo on the road, picking it up and discovering it comes with a song, this one.

Though nothing could be more prosaically American — a believer who has wandered through this land as a witness is ready to “cross over Jordan” — the uncertainty of the player’s touch makes you feel the man isn’t telling all he knows. Singing from inside the folk character, Edwards doesn’t tell you what he’s seen, but you can guess: “I’ll drop this cross of self-denial,” he says, and suddenly a mystical groaning, now pressed by guitar as well as banjo, comes out of the ground. . . . But after only one verse, in less than a minute, the old song stops. It seems to break down into a modern void, into abstract, disembodied sounds that don’t connect to each other; you wonder what happened. Then out of that suspension, the man returns, his scratchy, everyday voice insistent that death is the last promise he will keep: He will die with this song on his lips. He’ll sing it over and over for as long as it takes.

Greil Marcus, Interview magazine