The Coal Porters
Prima Records

When a Kentucky-born Byrds/Dylan scholar and a Scottish standup comedian joined forces in London way back in the ‘90s and started playing acoustic bluegrass renditions of their original songs, it was solely in response to a dare. Since then they have been joined by a hotshot female Canadian fiddler (Carly Frey) and a stellar banjo man from Cornwall, Dick Smith, with Jeff Kazmierski doing the honors on doghouse bass. Truly multicultural at the right time in history, the Coal Porters, as the quartet calls itself, surfaced on record in 2007 with the acclaimed Turn The Water Oh Boy! and folks took note. The sound was centered on classic traditional bluegrass, but the stirring harmonies came from other places—the Byrds, for example, even Peter, Paul & Mary—and between the oft-wacky musical musings of the Scottish comedian (Neil Robert Herd) and the literate, wry tunes penned by the Byrds/Dylan scholar (Sid Griffin, who once fronted the Long Ryders, one of the best Americana bands before there was even a name for its music, and has penned a thorough book-length investigation into some legendary sessions in Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band & The Basement Tapes), The Coal Porters are not quite like any other band out there in the roots field. Herd will give you the most puzzling drinkin’ song around (“One Is Way Too Many,” a hard driving, tightly harmonized tract that may or may not be about alcohol addiction, but is at best an ambivalent position on the issue) and a lively two-step western swing rumination on, one guesses, the singular positive upshot an alcoholic beverage can have on matters at hand (“the squeaky wheel gets the oil/no peace if there’s no grease/the squeaky wheel gets the oil/no conversation if there’s no libation”); Griffin will take a more inward tack, chronicling the suddenly and permanently altered world of a soldier all but blinded by a bomb blast in “Permanent Twilight,” sober, folk-flavored, guitar-and-banjo driven and both chilling and stirring in the descriptions of its main character’s resolve (“If God gave me back my vision and they’d give me back my gun/Then I would will my body to any war that needed won”) and frustrations (“tho my looks may deceive you this soldier’s still a man”), and then reflecting poignantly on a doomed but enduring love in the easy rolling country heartbreaker, “Lookin’ For a Soft Place to Fall,” which benefits additionally from Frey’s sturdy harmony singing supporting Griffin’s lead. Griffin’s folky “I’m Not Going Away” is where PP&M meet the Byrds, the former evoked in the acoustic guitar-based rhythmic pulse, the latter in the distinctive, vintage harmonies gracing a song centered on a gent’s vow of unswerving commitment to a the gal of his dreams who has otherwise been betrayed and hung out to dry by another. Add an intense, fiddle-fired rendition of “Pretty Polly” (a terrific duet between Frey and Griffin); a fevered, hard charging bluegrass rendition of Neil Young’s account of romantic turmoil, “Like a Hurricane,” with soaring choruses and a high-flying Frey fiddle solo at midpoint; and a red-hot instrumental, “Roadkill Breakdown,” in which all the players have their moment to cut loose, with special leeway given to guest picker Tim O’Brien to burn it up on mandolin ahead of Smith taking the baton and sprinting out to a big lead on the banjo before Frey takes the handoff and cuts out, spurring the whole band to bring it home. Durango is rich in so many elements—heart, soul, wit, hot licks, fine writing, historical resonance and exemplary singing—it’s practically a miracle. But no—these folks are assured, smart musicians who respect and then build on tradition with sure hands and impeccable instincts. —David McGee

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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, 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