Great Northern,
Low Lonesome
(Great Big Tater, 1999)

Maybe it was the fact that I grew up a southern boy, sitting with my grandfather while he watched Hee-Haw and Austin City Limits. Maybe it was the fact that the band playing the music normally associated with hillbillies and county fairs hails from Canada, of all places. But for some reason, I kept coming back to Low Lonesome time and time again, even after I promised myself I would listen to something else.

The six-man band Great Northern takes traditional instruments of bluegrass -- guitar, banjo, fiddle (or, in this case, viola) and mandolin, and adds the cello to the mix. And instead of throwing the whole works into one giant heap, the strange collection actually works. Doug Thordarson's viola, Tim Eccles' vocals and mandolin, and Iain MacIntyre's banjo work stand out from the group of excellent musicians (not discounting the work of the other members of the band, mind you).

The mix of traditional bluegrass tunes along with brand new songs is guaranteed to get your toes tapping. Great Northern's rendition of "Railroad Worksong" conjures up images of hoboes, riding the rails, and John Steinbeck characters. Instrumentals like "Hooligan Grease" let the band shine on their particular instruments. And new songs such as "Crazy Heart," "Just One Time" and "Sound of Poor Hearts Breaking" are solid, safe tracks.

Which leads my to my only two complaints about the CD. As a fan of the Austin Lounge Lizards, who play similar music but with more wildly divergent and humorous lyrics, I would have liked to see some wit behind the songs to match the excellent instrumentals. Secondly, Doug Thordarson should stick to the viola and let Tim Eccles do the singing. While I'm not saying he has a bad singing voice, it just doesn't fit with the ambience of the album as compared to Eccles' voice.

If you are a bluegrass fan, a southerner by location or heart, or a fan of good folk music, I recommend this album for your library. As for me, I'm going back for one more listen down Memory Lane.

[ by Timothy Keene ]