Dead Men's Hollow,
Death Must be a Woman
(Acoustic Americana, 2008)

Most casual fans don't realize the Washington, D.C., area is one of the hotbeds of bluegrass in the United States. When the music was peaking, you couldn't drive through the northern Virginia suburbs without nearly running over a banjo picker. The heat has died down a lot now, but many area bands are still keeping the music alive here. Among the best is a group consisting of four women and two men who call themselves Dead Men's Hollow, a name drawn from a geographical area in Arlington, Va.

On this, their third release, the band offers up a thematic album telling the story of the history of the D.C. area, from its beginning to the current time. Unlike their previous albums, which drew largely upon covers of artists like John Hartford and Hazel Dickens, with a few originals tossed in, this one -- except for one traditional instrumental -- consists of all recent material composed by the band.

Dead Men's Hollow has three strong female voices who sing harmony leads. You rarely hear a single voice up front. This means their approach is gentler, folkier, than most bluegrass bands. They can cook and they do, but mostly they cook with the heat set on medium. The results are finely done but never burned.

So, how is this particular album? As stated, it's a departure from their two previous releases, but not by much. Their compositions sound more like public domain songs than recently composed material, and I mean that as a compliment. They have aimed at a particular target and hit the bullseye cleanly. The writing is clean and crisp, the harmonies bordering on angelic and the musicianship is superb.

Marcy Cochran's fiddle, the major instrument, is impressive, soaring around the sung melodies like an additional voice and offering up tasteful, expressive solos that always suit the song. Mike Clayberg's guitar offers solid rhythm and good fills, while Caryn Fox, Belinda Hardesty and Amy Nazarov make three-part harmony sound easy and natural, as if it simply happened unplanned; they never let you see the work that must have gone into achieving that sound.

If you like a solid blend of Americana, folk and bluegrass, you're going to want to hear Death Must be a Woman.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

22 November 2008

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