Whitetop Mountain Band, |
(Mountain Roads, 2008)
Karl and Gail Cooler's new Mountain Roads label continues its winning streak with this superb release by the Whitetop Mountain Band, from Grayson County in southwestern Virginia along the North Carolina border. (My reviews of two earlier, equally impressive Mountain Roads CDs, by Big Country Bluegrass and the Elkville String Band, appeared here on 20 December 2008 and 9 January 2009 respectively.) That region's rich traditions, Mountain Roads' raison d'etre, have gone a long way toward defining what we think of as mountain music. Loafer's Dream informs doubters and pessimists that Southern string-band music -- whose golden age is supposed to have been in the 1920s -- not only lives but flourishes.
Though WMB performs at festivals around the country, it is also a popular regional square-dance band. In common with Mountain Roads' other acts, it is a genuinely rural ensemble, not a revival group in the fashion of the New Lost City Ramblers and their many descendents. The creation of influential fiddler and luthier Albert Hash in the 1940s, WMB was founded a decade before urban folk-music enthusiasts "discovered" old-time music.
Three of the current lineup's five members are Spencers -- fiddler Thornton and his multi-instrumentalist wife Emily and their daughter Martha -- complemented ably by mandolinist Jackson Cunningham and acoustic bassist Debbie Bramer. Emily and Martha split the bulk of lead-vocal and harmony duties, and they sing with beauty and intensity in the pure Appalachian style. The band sizzles without ever sounding soullessly slick.
The 15 cuts showcase traditional songs and fiddle tunes, three in-the-tradition originals, and inspired covers of songs from the hard-core bluegrass repertoire (Ralph Stanley's "If That's the Way You Feel," Francis Bell & Bill Grant's "Moods of a Fool"). Though the WMB is not a bluegrass outfit, the echoes of the genre at its most deeply rooted are everywhere apparent. I also am impressed that pieces ordinarily done as instrumentals ("Train 45," "Sally Anne"), at least when bluegrassers tackle them, have their lyrics restored, and with gorgeous harmonies to boot.
Hearing old-time mountain music for the first time in the mid-1960s, I knew that my life would never be the same. It would be better. The Whitetop Mountain Band, which carries the finest of the Appalachian tradition into the present and beyond, makes my heart glad.
14 March 2009
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