february 2009

Never Better, Any Old Way You Choose It

By David McGee

Lonesome River Band
Rural Rhythm

In its 25-year history of making memorable music the Lonesome River Band has arguably never been stronger than it is on the late 2008 release, No Turning Back. If this album doesn't earn a place on a lot of year-end Best Of lists, something's amiss, because few other albums in any genre boast finer singing, songwriting, playing or more conviction than this gem. Couples together and apart, and all the emotions attendant to those conditions, comprise the dominant theme of the 14 tracks here, as explored in well-turned songs penned by outside writers plus four stellar co-writes by the LRB's estimable Brandon Rickman, whose lead vocals are every bit as penetrating as his lyrics. Despite the lyrical content of the tunestack, the music driving the stories home ranges from high-spirited to meditative to downright somber.

Bob "Cadillac" Holmes's "Them Blues," the sad testimony of a man whose gal has walked right out on him, is a bit of a double-edged proposition, in that the musicians go strutting through it-powered by some potent picking from banjo master (and longest-tenured LRB member, now going on his 19th year with the group) Sammy Shelor—as if the man who's "cryin' all over the place" may not be all that cracked up about his plight. Shelor's ebullient banjo and fiddler Mike Hargrove's joyous fiddling propel the hard charging love song, "Like a Train Needs a Track" ("I need you like a train needs a track" is the striking metaphor articulated in the soaring choruses) and could not be more appropriate instrumental counterparts to the singer's expressed affection for his significant other. Rickman and Charlie Steff collaborated on a gripping story-song, "Dime Store Rings," a rich, swirling recounting of a young couple's low-budget courtship and abundant life together, all the way to the grave; only at the end do we learn that the song's protagonists are the singer's mother and father, and consequently the love song aspect of its narrative takes on a more affecting resonance. The deceptively titled Ginger Boatwright number, "Somebody's Missing You," is not the tear-in-the-beer lament its title suggests, but rather breaks from the gate at a full-on sprint led by Shelor's white-hot banjo flurries, with refueling along the way from Hargrove's sprightly fiddle soloing and a fleet-fingered salvo on mandolin by the ol' philosopher, Andy Ball. Against this breathtaking backdrop the high lonesome harmonizing is so tight and exuberant as to warrant the fellows being brought up on charges of criminal indifference, a la the Seinfeld bunch—it's just flat illegal to feel this good about feeling bad.

The Lonesome River Band (from left): Brandon Rickman, Mike Hargrove, Sammy Shelor, Andy Ball, Mike Anglin: No Turning Back shows the quintet at its best, first cut to last

The band tones it down a bit to a more deliberate, if still propulsive, pace on the exquisite "I'm Not There Yet," a co-write by Rickman and Jerry Sally. The Shelor-Flanagan banjo-fiddle duo does its part to lay on some aching feeling in this account of a broken heart on the mend, but it's Rickman's heartfelt vocal breathing emotional depth into this lyrically acute lament offering the memorable observation: "If feeling is a process/I'm slowly making progress/there's just a few more memories to get past/I'm not there yet/but I'm on the right track." The band does justice to Ralph Stanley's "I'd Worship You," which is not the love song its title suggests but rather a man's vow to his unfaithful partner to change her wayward ways in return for the title's promise, delivered with close harmony choruses, a plaintive lead vocal and delivered at a brisk gallop led once more by Shelor and Hargrove in full stride. The album's most dramatic moment comes by way of "Darkness Wept," a keening, atmospheric, eyewitness account of Christ's Crucifixion day, its title nodding to the shortest verse in the Bible, "Jesus wept." The details of the horrific act are vividly rendered—the song was written by Dee Gaskin and Rebecca Bowman—and the questions it poses at the end, all centered on the matter of defending Christ against his accusers, remain volatile today. No virtuosic instrumental displays are offered, only a deliberate, moody pace and committed vocalizing made all the more effective by dint of modest performances designed to serve the story first and foremost. The Lonesome River Band can do it all, any old way you choose it, and No Turning Back shows the quintet at its best, first cut to last.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024