Scott Holstein,
Cold Coal Town
(Coal, 2013)

In common with the Stanley Brothers -- and, after Carter's death, Ralph Stanley on his own -- Scott Holstein conjures up a sound that emanates from the space between old-time mountain music and its much younger incarnation, bluegrass. It's not quite one or the other, or maybe it's both. However you classify it, it is plain-spoken and soulful, and not so ancient as it may seem. Cold Coal Town is all Holstein's compositions, with backing from the estimable likes of Scott Vestal (banjo), Tim Crouch (fiddle), Randy Kohrs (dobro) and others. Holstein accompanies himself on guitar.

Having just been exposed to a new CD from a chirpy family band, part of a movement that apparently seeks to blur the distinction between bluegrass and country-pop, I turned to Coal Town for relief and restoration. This is tough-minded stuff with a darkly hued view of life, in this instance from the perspective of a man in West Virginia's coal country, something Holstein, who hails from there, knows about. If you're looking for authenticity -- I can't define that much-abused word, but I think I recognize it when I hear it -- this is as close an approximation as the 21st century allows.

The album features a Stanley Brothers tribute ("Clinch Mountain Hills"), and a terrific one it is, but if Holstein's voice and overall sensibility remind me of anyone, it's Dave Evans, the veteran Ohio-based banjo player and vocalist who traffics in the raw and traditional. Evans and Holstein communicate the mostly grim news in baritones so compelling that you'll never make the mistake -- more than once, anyway -- of treating their albums as background music. Evans contributes liner notes to Coal Town, clearly recognizing a brother in the art of putting pictures from life's other side on exhibition.

Nearly all of the songs -- there are nine of them along with two splendid instrumentals -- focus on aspects of life under Big Coal. Few coal songs are cheerful, and Holstein's are no exception, but they stand their ground against nearly any of the competition. Sung unaccompanied and sounding as if more than a century old, "Black Water" relates a true tale of a February 1972 flood in Buffalo Creek, W.Va., occasioned by what Holstein calls the "rich man's greed" -- a dam collapsed, coal slurry washed over the immediate area ending the lives of 125 coal-town residents, and the coal company ducked responsibility. "Roll Coal Roll" feels like two songs in one: both a coal-truck driver's complaint and an uneasy lament for the fading of the industry.

One consistent, paradoxical reality is that traditional music manages to communicate tragedy and hard times without driving the listener away. Rather, besides providing the pleasure one experiences from songs with strong melodies and compelling narratives, it deepens one's connection to the world. Holstein sings honestly and convincingly from a true and profound place. Wherever his songs go, they take you with them.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 December 2013

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