Blue Mafia,
Pray for Rain
(Pinecastle, 2015)

The Farm Hands,
Better Than I Deserve
(Pinecastle, 2015)

As one who's loved bluegrass all of his adult life, I never cease to marvel at the genre's endurance. It's not that nobody has ever gotten rich playing bluegrass -- Bill Monroe certainly did -- it's that few have managed to do so while not letting that stop them. If any music lives on the love of those who play it and those who listen to it, it's bluegrass. It helps that speciality independent labels provide bluegrass acts a recording outlet. One of them is Pinecastle, which dependably issues quality CDs by bands old and new, well known and less so.

The culture of bluegrass is divided -- though it overlaps at points -- between performers possessed of authentic connections with Appalachia (or the Appalachian diaspora into the Lower Midwest) and those, mostly Northern and urban, who were drawn to the music through a general interest in folk-based music. Blue Mafia and the Farm Hands, from Muncie, Indiana, and Nashville respectively, are young, rising bands, both traditional by current definition, both linked to Appalachia. Pray for Rain and Better Than I Deserve attest to the ability of good musicians to keep the sound fresh and exciting.

The five-piece Blue Mafia boasts an impressive lineup of singers (fiddler Kent Todd and mandolinist Dara Wray, with radically different yet somehow complementary vocal styles), gifted pickers and consistently solid material. Band members evince a keen awareness of the old mountain music that preceded bluegrass. Though the old-timers "Moonshiner" and "East Virginia Blues" have often been recorded ("Moonshiner" by no less than Bob Dylan in his Village folksinger days), Blue Mafia places them inside innovative arrangements that seem to deepen the songs and uncover new meaning in them.

Don Robertson's "Born to be With You" was once a hit for the Chordettes and, later, for country-pop star Sonny James. Blue Mafia's driving harmonies, combined with the song's appealing melody, happily overwhelm the saccharine lyrics. A particular highlight is Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm's "I'd Like to be a Train," a better song than its title suggests. Dara Wray's compelling "One Bad Day" grows out of a strikingly original idea; I don't recall hearing a comparable story in any song I've heard in any genre.

A good part of the Farm Hands' Better Than I Deserve is devoted to songs about the good old days. Having no nostalgia genes, I don't believe for a moment that "good old days" ever existed, at least in the sense that the phrase ordinarily denotes. (I do believe, however, in blurred memories.) And if past days were good for some (e.g., well-fixed white people), they were the opposite for many others. On the other hand, one doesn't turn to bluegrass for deep historical and social insight, which one certainly won't hear in band member Daryl Mosley's opening cut, "The Way That I Was Raised." On the other hand, Merle Haggard's "The Way It Was in '51," which the band covers here, is -- as a social scientist would put it -- more descriptive than prescriptive, and all in all an outstanding song in both concept and performance.

The Farm Hands, all seasoned music-industry pros, are the secular version of a gospel quartet, which under a slightly different name performs regularly in Southern evangelical churches. The tracks that aren't ruminations about the good old days address religious matters, including the bad-days-to-come "Blood on the Moon" (composed by Billy Troy) and Mosley's title song. As I write, the year is young, but "From Your Knees" (by Leslie Ann Witt) is as impressive a bluegrass gospel song as I expect to encounter in the next 12 months. As much a cautionary tale about the pride that comes before a fall as a sermon about the need for personal salvation, it's a Christian anthem whose message will move even unbelieving listeners. No surprise, the Farm Hands are masters of pure gospel, demonstrating that in particularly satisfying fashion with the traditional "Over in the Gloryland" and Tedd Graves's "Streets of Gold."

If you 're fretting about bluegrass' current status and future prospects, these two CDs are an effective cure. In hands like these, the music both survives and thrives.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 February 2015

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

Click on a cover image
to make a selection.

what's new