The Bucking Mules,
The Bucking Mules
(independent, 2016)

Hackensaw Boys,
(Free Dirt, 2016)

Formed in the late 1950s, the New Lost City Ramblers introduced a northern, urban generation to the stringband music of the rural South. Even in the 1920s, when recordings by mountain fiddlers, banjoists and guitarists were being issued on commercial labels, bringing into the world an early folk iteration of the popular music that would eventually be called "country," it was "old time" as if it were grandparents' entertainment on its way to inevitable -- and likely imminent -- extinction.

Well, it survived, to the degree that today it's become not just the stuff of folk revivalism but a genre on the edges of contemporary pop. Bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Old Crow Medicine Show perform for rock audiences. Who could have predicted? Naturally, the genre now exists in varying states of fidelity to tradition. Even if the instrumentation remains largely the same, the arrangements and original songs may reflect rock, rockabilly and other influences. Still, another group of bands mean what they say when they say "old time" in as many senses as they can manage in the 21st century.

It's been nearly a decade since the last studio release by Hackensaw Boys. I reviewed Look Out! in this space on 15 September 2007. As I prepared to write these words, I reread what I said back then. I was surprised to find how much I said about it that I planned to say about Charismo (which, by the way, the dictionary defines as "another word for charisma"). In short: sharply crafted self-penned songs played on stringband instruments, sometimes traditional in spirit (especially the excellent "Flora," clearly nodding to the 19th-century ballad "Lily of the West"), sometimes more wide-ranging and punk-rockish, even here and there a tad off the wall. Then again, that's not entirely new. You can credit the decades-ago gonzo antics of Peter Stampfel & the Holy Modal Rounders, who drove American folk songs to a raucous gathering in the twilight zone.

I said it before, and I'll say it again: Contemporary bluegrass writing should be as good as a typical Hackensaw composition.

What's new, besides the material, is the probably unsurprising revelation that the band is even better after more years of playing and performing under its members' collective belt. The album, moreover, just sounds better, too; a bright, crisp, expertly engineered sound spills out of the speakers and spreads the excitement around. No doubt it helps to have a producer of Larry Campbell's experience and character on board.

And then there's oldtime music done the oldtime way. It used to be, still is if to a much lesser extent, that revival outfits listened to those old 78s and covered them in arrangements close to the originals. Since the early days of the New Lost City Ramblers, however, those foundational recordings have been voluminously reissued, and unless an artist or band has creatively reworked the original, there's little point in listening.

Alongside the rise of what might be call newtime string bands, purely tradition-oriented outfits -- for example, Hog-Eyed Man and the Sunny Mountain Serenaders, whose CDs I have reviewed here this year -- have dug deeper and picked up on neglected tunes, ballads and songs. They have also made an effort to play them in a way that revives and honors earlier instrumental styles, albeit without sounding like stale imitators.

The four-member Bucking Mules draw their repertoire in good part from their own collecting and from field recordings of rural Southeastern musicians. All but one live there. The single exception, West Coast-based guitarist Karen Celia Heil, travels frequently to the region and by now has made it something of a second home. (The other members are Joseph Decosimo [fiddle, banjo], Luke Richardson [banjo, harmonica] and Joe Dejarnette [bass].) Of the band's sources the most famous -- in, of course, a decidedly relative sense -- is Clyde Davenport.

The 11 cuts are made up of fiddle and banjo tunes, two with accompanying vocals, including the oddly infrequently covered "Paddy Won't You Drink Some Cider." That one happens to be among the first oldtime songs I ever heard, on the 1928 Riley Puckett/Clayton McMichen record. Not only is it a terrific piece, its very title testifies to its -- and much of Appalachian music's -- Irish origins.

If you love this sort of stuff, you'll want to hear this recording, which offers up a winning combination of first-rate material and superior musicianship, shaping a sound that is rich and deep and joyful. The heart of the Old Southern Sound (Mike Seeger's phrase) beats proudly and happily in the music of the Bucking Mules.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 July 2016

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