Flatt Lonesome,
Runaway Train
(Mountain Home, 2015)

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers,
Run Away Thought
(Mountain Home, 2015)

You might think this is Rambles.NET's "run away" segment, though in banal truth the titles are coincidental. Runaway Train and Run Away Thought are two solidly executed albums by, respectively, an up-and-coming bluegrass band and a fairly established one. The two approaches are broadly similar -- a blending of modern and traditional sounds -- but even a listener unschooled in bluegrass would not confuse them, and not just because Flatt Lonesome has a commanding female presence and Chris Jones & the Night Drivers (a name that hints at the wit for which Jones is celebrated in the bluegrass world) boasts Jones's deep baritone.

The Night Drivers, who -- not counting Jones himself -- number three (among them bass player Jon Weisberger, a prominent producer and songwriter within the genre), are joined here and there by guests, most famously bluegrass headliner Del McCoury and veteran fiddler Bobby Hicks. Together they fashion a muscular sound out of some stellar storytelling ballads (e.g., Jones/Weisberger's "One Night in Paducah"), country-flavored heartbreakers (the same duo's "She's Just About to Say Goodbye"), instrumentals (Ned Luberecki's "Bowties are Cool") and even an Irish folk song ("The Leaving of Liverpool") of which most bluegrassers have never heard. The last, a most pleasant surprise, is done fairly straightforwardly. The band's arrangement, in other words, does not radically rework it to fit it to bluegrass. Still, it is bluegrass, reminiscent of the Country Gentlemen's memorable handling of folk material in their first decade's recordings.

There was a time not so long ago when it was just about impossible to pick up a bluegrass disc without a song on it by Tom T. Hall, usually written with his (now deceased) wife Dixie. The Halls were so prolific that one might have thought they were churning out songs in their sleep, except that the songs were always admirably crafted, usually relating interesting stories or exploring emotional states not routinely visited. I say this because songs by the Halls are, sad to say, scarcer than they used to be. Given the autopilot style of too much writing in the genre, they've been missed. Thus, one is delighted to hear Tom T.'s "Pinto the Wonder Horse is Dead," exemplifying one of Hall's many strengths, the ability to recall childhood's sense of wonder and express regret at its passing without falling into mushiness. Jones delivers the story with his always assured approach, distinguished not only by distinctive vocal but by his manifest intelligence. The melody will stick around to play on your psychic jukebox, too.

Though I reviewed Flatt Lonesome's previous album without much enthusiasm (1 June 2013), Runaway Train leads me to believe (a) I missed something or (b) with two years' additional performing experience the band has come confidently into its own. These days it ranks among the most popular and respected of the young bands on the circuit.

Native to Florida and transplanted to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Flatt Lonesome is at its core a family band. That family consists of siblings Kelsi, Charli and Buddy Robertson, with Dominic Illingworth on bass. On this recording Paul Harrigill (married to Kelsi) and Michael Stockton contribute instrumental skills on several cuts, plus in Harrigill's case a couple of co-writes. The songs, a mix of originals and covers, are infused with the sisters' genetic harmonies, the sort of thing that goes all the way back to the Carter Family and through a lot of brothers from the Monroes to the Delmores to the Louvins to the Everlys, always to be welcomed by lovers of fine rural-accented music.

If this isn't hard-core mountain 'grass, it's not pop fluff, either. Country music and gospel are the most audible influences, and the band has a good ear for worthy songs that haven't been done to death. Though I'm a longtime Merle Haggard fan, till now I'd never heard his comically vexed "Mixed up Mess of a Heart" (written in 1967 with Tommy Collins). If the song and Flatt Lonesome's good-humored treatment don't make you feel better, probably nothing will lift your spirits. Kelsi contributes a stirring original gospel "In the Morning" which in the manner of all powerful hymns works to provide strength and comfort even to those not inclined to embrace the theology.

music review by
Jerome Clark

24 October 2015

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