Christian Lopez,
Down By the Drowning Creek
(Fiddlebone, 2004)

Here we have an Athens, Ga.,-based artist whose first offering is exploring some interesting musical ground. Christian Lopez is a teller of tales set to music, and the tales he relates in Down By the Drowning Creek are largely the stuff of darker times, the hard edges of life in America a century and more ago. Lopez is ably assisted in this task by a formidable contingent of supporting musicians: Antoon Speters is the master of banjo and national steel guitar, and shares mandolin duties with Lopez; Dick Daniels skillfully anchors the rhythm with some sterling standup bass work; Andrew Heaton's fiddle helps drive both melody and counterpoint; and William Tonks provides evocative embellishment on the dobro. Lopez, in addition to providing some of the mandolin, renders all of the acoustic guitar and vocals that so relentlessly push the music forward.

And relentless is a reasonable word to employ in describing the music contained herein. Stories of hard living, love unrequited, tragic demise and unexpected heroism are the stuff of Drowning Creek and will remind the listener of the great Child ballads that migrated to America, in spite of the fact that these are (with one exception) original tunes.

The opening song, "The Miller's Daughter," includes as its first line the title of the disc. This is a clever turn on the tale of the beauty who gets herself down to the creek and meets with an untimely end. It is also our introduction to Lopez's singing voice, which is a remarkable double (in both phrasing and inflection) to a mid-career Arlo Guthrie (I have been assured that this similarity is not affectation, but coincidence, as Christian points out that his voice is merely the best vehicle for telling these stories). "Patrick Delany," the first of several songs touching upon the hell that was life in the Civil War prison at Andersonville, is next; it is a saga in which the title character comes to a predictable bad end as a raider in that desolate place. There is splendid guitar and slide work to be found in the next song, "Bounty Jumper," a tune again touching upon life at Andersonville.

We next shift narrative focus westward, as "Under the Mountain" explores the lament of a miner trapped in an unrequited love who is prepared to consign his fate to the mountain that has provided his livelihood. Next come two tunes, "Julia Bulette" and "One Fine Spring Day" -- in the former, we learn of the sad and mysterious demise of Ms. Bulette, a courtesan, and in the latter, we discover that the mystery of her untimely death has found a solution in the arrest, trial and pending hanging of a hapless young fellow of French extraction, an event whose picnic mood is summed up starkly in the lyric "eating squirrel sandwiches before the hanging of Jean Millain." As is the case elsewhere, Lopez has used historical events to musically revisit the era in which they originally transacted.

The true tale of "Little Red Cap" and the Alabama guard at Andersonville who saved him is the next offering, as the drummer boy from West Virginia manages to survive the nightmare that claimed all the rest of the prisoners taken from his unit. We then take an interesting side road into the very nearly timeless elegy, "Mossy Grove," in which a tornado and graveyard cross paths. I say nearly timeless because of a lyric reference to an "F-3" force storm, which otherwise would render this piece a purer form of nouveau gothic narrative with a twist(er)....

The one traditional tune in this offering is a strong instrumental read of "Cold Frosty Morning," and it is followed by the closer, the tale of chance encounter and then moving on which is the stuff of "Vesey's Hotel" -- yet another examination of what is, and what might have been. This means of ending the disc is perfect framing, capturing the story-songs of Lopez's world in the amber of a through-the-glass-darkly look back into the 19th century, and the lives of those that gave it substance.

I recommend this disc highly to those for whom the work of singer-songwriters is valued, and to those whose interest in an earlier time is fueled by musical explorations of same. All myths are not ancient, and not all stories worth telling are told upon the operatic stage. Lopez and his colleagues have given us a handful of glimpses into life as it was, and done so with admirable skill and style.

As I close, I note for those not captivated by the substance and structure of the offerings in Down by the Drowning Creek that Lopez is at work on a new album, which will explore a broader range of musical interests, and may even get electric in places. I, for one, can't wait to see what's next.

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 23 October 2004