If Cumberland River doesn’t sound like your high lonesome bluegrass, maybe it’s because they hail from the coal country of Harlan County Kentucky. This is dirty knuckles, grease, and coal dust bluegrass. The instrumentation is strong and the lead vocals rumble like coal mine machinery and, indeed, some members of the band work the mines.
One of the more startling notes about this recording is that every track is an original. When was the last time you took a look at a bluegrass album, no matter how big the name, and didn’t find some cover songs? And the craftsmanship of the songs is superb. This band could have collected their paychecks filling bars and playing “southern rock with a banjo” bluegrass; instead they found their own path, not quite newgrass, and not quite traditional – we may well have to make room for “New Traditional” in the bluegrass lexicon.
“Outside Looking In”
The band is James Dean (banjo and vocals), Joseph Jones (bass), Dustin Middleton (mandolin, guitar, and vocals), Andy Buckner (guitar and vocals), Justin Moses (fiddle and Dobro), Jamie Stewart (Dobro), Steve Gulley (harmony vocals and guitar), and Dale Ann Bradley (harmony vocals).
Their sophomore CD, The Life We Live, opens with “Harlan Man,” a fitting introduction to the dust and hard times of Harlan County, where “A Harlan man don’t have much choice, either work down in the mines or the money you won’t find.” The quote about bluegrass being the happiest music with the saddest lyrics starts here.
“Lonely Road” is about walking away from a broken relationship with the vow to get back to “who he was before.” “Cold and Withered Heart,” is, yes, another broken heart song, traveling down the hard side of life. “Outside Looking In” drops for the first time into ballad mode, a song about family and friends, but of course written with the sadness of being outside the circle. “One More Try” is just what you would think from the title, a broken guy begging the woman in his life to give him one more chance. “Mary Flynn” is a ghost story song, and you wouldn’t expect anything other than a broken heart and murder behind the lyrics. “Train of Sorrow” is, well, I think you’re getting the idea, this is toe-tapping bluegrass, but like some of the greatest bluegrass out there it’s firmly based on getting through a hard life.
The final song is the hook. “Justified” is the soundtrack to the FX Network hit of the same title. Yes it’s commercial (or as much so as bluegrass gets!). And yes it’s a foot-stomper. But can anything that introduces a new audience to bluegrass be a bad thing???
Just one last note make sure Cumberland River gets your attention; the band attended last fall’s IBMA’s World of Bluegrass as official Showcase performers, quite some attention for a very new band!
Rural Rhythm Records