Dead Men's Hollow,
Forever True
(AcousticAmericana, 2005)

The best thing about Dead Men's Hollow -- four women and two men from the D.C. area -- is its name. It was a real place in lawless post-Civil War Arlington County, Virginia, where robbers and killers preyed on the drunk and the unwary from the shadows along the road.

With a moniker like that, the listener cannot be blamed for anticipating ... something else. A friend, the longtime folksinger and recording artist Robin Williams (of Robin & Linda Williams), once remarked to me that the highways are littered with the bodies of those who made the fatal error of thinking folk music is easy. You might think of them as dead performers' hollows.

Dead Men's Hollow is, I guess, supposed to be an old-time string band, but it sounds like -- and I'm sure is -- an earnest enterprise put together by well-meaning and no doubt perfectly likable individuals who know little about the string-band tradition or the rough mountain music that preceded it, but who nonetheless, on hearing some artists and recordings, imagined they got the idea. The musicians' biographies, in fact, confirm that their backgrounds in traditional music are slight and recent. One does not get the impression, either, that they've exactly immersed themselves in honkytonk country, as witness several gratingly failed self-composed attempts at it occupying slots on this album.

Listening to Forever True, I am reminded of the handful of occasions on which life's circumstances brought me within hearing distance of college music majors working side projects grounded in cluelessly naive notions of what traditional music is and how it ought to be played and sung. (I recall an especially trauma-inducing arrangement of "Sourwood Mountain.") The results seemed to please fellow banquet guests who had little comprehension of the style, even less of what its appeal is. The ensembles in question sounded much -- or maybe exactly -- like this. Stiff, classically trained voices, warbling harmonies that are jarringly dysfunctional in context and woefully unready to meet head-on old folk music's fierce and fiery truths about murder, alcohol, lust, damnation and salvation, do not an edifying sound make.

by Jerome Clark
7 January 2006

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