The Farm Hands,
Dig in the Dirt
(Pinecastle, 2016)

Jim & Lynna Woolsey,
Heart & Soul, Blood & Bone
(Broken Record, 2016)

In our time certain cynical politicians have managed to put concepts such as "family values" and "heartland beliefs" into bad odor. They do it by transforming these from phrases with some arguable meaning into manipulative slogans meant to conjure up the Others, the sorts of folks who are not part of what we are to believe is the "real America," located in the just-mentioned heartland. In my entire lifetime I have never anyone who opposes the concept of family, and I'll bet you haven't either. And the simple truth of our democracy is that any citizen of the United States is a real American, period.

Still, notwithstanding their rhetorical abuse in political contexts, sincere if naive affirmations of small-town and rural ways comprised a sizable portion of songs that survive from another era. They have been preserved in the repertoires of oldtime, hillbilly and bluegrass musicians, where a pre-Freudian view of Mother prevails and good old days, however dependent upon selective memory, are celebrated. Even if, like me, you were born without a nostalgia gene and are constitutionally suspicious of simplistic bromides that pass as homespun wisdom, I love those old heart songs as much as the next squishy mope. I do draw the line, though, at the Jimmie Rodgers chestnut "Mother, Queen of My Heart," which should be played only when you need to drive an unwelcome visitor from your home.

In the music of the Farm Hands, family and faith are at the forefront. If the themes express convictions and emotions from a rural society that is fast receding into the cultural distance, the songs are in part freshly composed, some within the band. Since its last album the band has downsized from five members to four, with Tim Graves (dobro) and Daryl Mosley (bass) remaining. Keith Tew has replaced Joe Miller on guitar, and since Dig in the Dirt was cut, Don Hill has stepped in for Bennie Boling on banjo. Members share vocal duties. Individually and collectively, this Nashville-based outfit has won just about every award in the bluegrass realm. Whatever one's reservations about Farm Hand ideology, no one would dispute that the music is exemplary.

The Farm Hands, who play a lot of churches in the South and in the liner notes give a shout-out to "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," have a particularly effective way with gospel songs. Partly vivid metaphor, Mosley's "All the Way Home" is a stand-out cut, as is Tew's sprightly title song. If you have a soft spot in your head for this sort of stuff, Betty Sue Perry's "Medals for Mothers," originally recorded by the Wilburn Brothers to remind us of all the saintly moms out there, is pretty decent as such things go. (And in the first two lines they go I dreamed mother walked up the heavenly stairs / And medals for mothers were given up there.) Masters at their craft, the Farm Hands have set the songs in smart modern bluegrass arrangements, making clear that whatever the lyrics may imply to the contrary, the band does after all live in 2016.

Like me, Jim & Lynna Woolsey live in a small town in the Midwest, in their case in Indiana. I've long observed that the tradition of music-making in much of rural America is largely gone. Not that there aren't musicians, of course, but their music is rarely indigenous to where they live; it's mostly recycled popular hits. The Woolseys, on the other hand, are creating their own music about their own place. Their self-created songs, based in bluegrass, country and folk, recall their own lives and the lives of friends and family members.

Heart & Soul, Blood & Bone is an enjoyable, sometimes touching work, often darkly shaded. It's a necessary antidote to clueless celebrations of life in the country, usually composed by city dwellers, who fail to grasp that existence out in the so-called heartland can be a relentless struggle. The title song, which eloquently provides the details, is the strongest here. Other songs deal with religious themes, mostly eschewing standard tropes and cliches.

On the other hand, I wish "Freedom" had more satisfying lyrics. While it has a sturdy melody and some striking lines, it essentially recycles familiar sentiments on the well-traveled theme of fallen soldiers. As the namesake of one who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, as one who bore witness to the unrelieved grief that my slain uncle's mother and siblings took to their graves, I wish this subject could be addressed without the usual pieties. They begin with the definition of "freedom," which in this and comparable material never seems quite synonymous with liberty, and fails to consider that for all wars the nation has waged, only three (Revolutionary, Civil, World War II) were fought over an existential threat to the United States.

For the most part, those who died in uniform were sacrificed for short-term strategic or political purposes, which may or may not have made sense in retrospect. Which is to say that only a relative minority died to preserve freedom from domination by unfriendly foreign powers, much less for civil rights and liberties as outlined in the First Amendment. For the latter, we are more in debt to a lot of people who did not wear uniforms but who shared a vision of a nation dedicated to justice, equality, and free expression, and acted on it. And for a song on that definition of American freedom, we have to turn to the late Phil Ochs's "Power & the Glory."

music review by
Jerome Clark

10 September 2016

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