Hunger Mountain Boys,
(Old-Fi, 2006)

Whatever their name may lead you to expect, the Hunger Mountain Boys are neither an old-time string band nor a bluegrass outfit. Their music is certainly related to those approaches to what Mike Seeger calls the Old Southern Sound. Actually, theirs bows to a strand of early country music that rose to prominence in the 1930s and finally flowered with the Louvin Brothers two decades later. It's been a long while since music like this was played on country radio or performed on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

The Massachusetts-based HMBs are three in number, with vocalists Kip Beacco and Teddy T. Weber reveling in exuberantly ragged harmonies and Matt Downing (who also plays with Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops) plunking stand-up bass behind them. Beacco handles guitar, mandolin and fiddle, Weber guitar and steel guitar. It's hillbilly touched with hokum and ragtime, with Appalachian folk always looming somewhere, close or distant, in the background. The result is a kind of rural vaudeville music.

It's easy, of course, to do this uninterestingly. After all, there's no shortage these days of reissue CDs documenting the good old days of brother duets, obviously the HMBs' proximate influence. It's hard to persuade experienced listeners that they might have a reason to tear themselves away from the Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers or the Blue Sky Boys when they're available -- at least as recorded voices -- to remind us of some of the greatest country music ever preserved on wax.

Happily, the HMBs don't really sound like any of them. For all their looking backward, they're too smart to indulge themselves in stale, needless duplication and repetition. They're good, they're having loads of fun and they choose solid material from both source recordings and their own in-the-tradition compositions (plus the ominous, atmospheric ballad "Mt. St. Helens," from the pen of Jennie Benford, of both Jim & Jennie and the Crooked Jades). With no trouble the listener could confuse the archival and hot-off-the-press stuff -- not as simple to make happen as it sounds. For that to occur, the performers must be so far inside their own imagined past that it may as well be real and 60 years ago. If you aren't careful, the HMBs will get you to believe in time travel.

by Jerome Clark
28 October 2006