Blue Moon Rising: (from left) Chris West, Tony Mowell, Owen Platt, Brandon Bostic. The do nuance well. Beware.

Blue Moon Rising’s Dark Vision

By David McGee

Blue Moon Rising
Rural Rhythm

The upward arc that has been the career path of East Tennessee’s Blue Moon Rising since its self-released 2001 debut continues unimpeded, and arguably reaches its highest trajectory yet, on the Randy Kohrs-produced Strange New World. Again it is the songs and, mostly, the muscular voice of group founder/leader Chris West setting the pace. Let it be said West has never before imparted as dark a vision of the world as he does this time out, and the sheer relentlessness of that vision is rather breathtaking--uplifting, not so much, but breathtaking, disturbing even, yes indeed.

Tony Mowell of Blue Moon Rising on ‘My Sittin’ Window,’ from the band’s latest album, Strange New World

We don’t have to wait long to find out what’s on West’s mind this time. The opening song, a spry proposition bustling with energetic fiddle (by Tim Crouch) and dobro (Kohrs) work, is an unapologetic kissoff to a mate he can’t be rid of too soon and to whom he pulls no punches in declaring his immediate intentions: “So clear the way, unlock the door, ‘cause I can’t stay here anymore/You’ve held me down for way too long/it’s time for me to be a-movin’ on.” An additional clue to West’s mindset is provided in the next song, “Never Happy Till I’m Full of Sorrow,” a title that would seem to say it all until you dig into the lyrics and find West’s misery stems solely from spiritual poverty--the song’s narrator has all the material wealth he wants, but can’t connect with living things (his friends are mostly strangers, he’s leaving his girl, and even his hound dog has wearied of hearing him “whine about self-inflicted pain and misery.”) “Hard Luck Joe” moves along at steady gait, kind of a carefree feel, but here West tells of a fellow whose embrace of “liquor, drugs and women” has sent him spiraling into homelessness, his job and his family but a distant memory now. “He’s All Around Us,” keyed by Travis “Skunky” Gillespie’s howling blues harmonica and Kohrs’s edgy, intense dobro lines, plus a bit of extra ballast courtesy Kenny Malone’s brush drums, has a John Anderson feel in its dark ambiance and West’s plaintive vocal lamenting the pervasive presence of evil in the world, “He” being the Devil who is, West warns over the malevolent soundscape,  “acting like He’s helping me and leading me astray.” So go these battles throughout Strange New World: in the sturdy lope of “Barely Hangin’ On” he sings of dancing “with the Devil, whiskey, pills and girls/every day gets harder now that youth is gone/but I’m still here, barely hangin’ on…” and you can’t decide if he’s happy about that or praying for it to end, given all the havoc he’s wreaked with his wayward flights of self-indulgence; the album ends with a folk-flavored fingerpicked ballad, “What a Helluva Way to Go,” in which West chronicles various untimely ends--a worker who loses a job he’s held for 30 years; a young farm boy who dies of an overdose on the subway; and finally, himself, looking down from his perch on a bridge at the water below, and contemplating suicide: “I can’t help but smile and think what a helluva way to go/into eternity I go with no regret…” And yet, a bit past the album’s halfway mark West offers a solemn, lovely bluegrass hymn, “Living Water,” featuring a succinct, evocative mandolin solo and chopping under West’s direct, assertive vocal, with the rest of the group joining in for soaring harmonized choruses. Well, where could he turn but to the Lord?

Chris West discusses the genesis of ‘Never Happy Till I’m Full of Sorrow,’ from the album Strange New World

West’s songs dominate the album, but aren’t the only tunes recommending Strange New World. The band kicks out the jams and really struts its vocal and instrumental chops on an uptempo Jon Weisberger-penned heartbreaker, “Hearts to Stone.” Guitarist Brandon Bostic checks in with a stirring, backwoods-flavored story-song, “The Dust Bowl,” concerning an unfortunate fellow who emigrated from Carolina to Oklahoma just in time to be battered senseless by Mother Nature’s 1931 follies out on the plains, but is determined to lean on his faith and, with Job-like patience, outlast whatever God throws at him (“he’s never needed help before, and he doesn’t need it now/it’s hard to swallow pride with all this dust inside your mouth”). One of the finest numbers on the long player comes by way of ever-reliable Becky Buller. In her “Ain’t No Way,” she likens a departing lover to a freight train “burning down a one-way track/now there ain’t now way you’re coming back,” and accepts the inevitable as the best possible outcome anyway. Tim Crouch serves up an anxious fiddle solo that might well speak for the inner turmoil the narrator tries to mask with a resigned attitude, but the group underscores the ache in the metaphorical chorus by injecting a plaintive cry into their harmonizing--however bright the music, however sanguine the lyrics, the subtext is infused with real pain. This is the sort of nuanced performance Blue Moon Rising has done so well over the years, but has mastered on Strange New World. Beware of what you’re tapping your toe to, all ye who enter here.

Blue Moon Rising’s Strange New World is available at www.amazon.com

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