While Hills of Alabam is a new release, the material all dates from the early 1980s or thereabouts—it’s a compilation of material from two Front Porch String Band albums, the only ones that were ever released, with the one exception being “The Day that Lester Died” which comes from Mark Newton’s album Follow Me Back to the Fold.
For fans of Claire Lynch—and frankly, who isn’t—this album is a delight. The instrumentation sparkles, as does the quiet energy of the material. Yet, despite the extremely tight and tasteful instrumentalists, Lynch’s voice steals the show pretty much throughout.
All the songs were recorded at a time when Lynch had already been in the business approaching two decades, had recorded as a session vocalist with raft of A-list artists, and had her songs recorded by many of them as well, including Patty Loveless, The Whites, and the Seldom Scene. Though she had yet to win any Grammy nominations or IBMA awards (though they would soon come), she was nevertheless a seasoned professional with a sterling reputation as writer, singer and, to some extent, a band leader. All of that expertise shows in spades in the material collected on The Hills of Alabam. The arrangements are masterful, even when they go beyond the traditional bluegrass instrumental, as on the title track for this collection, the gorgeous “Hills of Alabam,” which includes drums (gasp!).
But the arrangements are also exemplary of one of the things that Lynch has always done so well, and something that I just love about her work. She’s less interested in the genre of bluegrass, or country, or whatever, and more interested in finding the best way to deliver a song. This even when she approaches songs that are indelibly traditional, as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” and the Carter Family’s “Wabash Cannonball.”
There are some true bluegrass songs collected here—Keith Little’s “Where Dear Friends Will Never Part,” and Lynch’s “Come Unto Me”—though a majority of the songs are from the fringes of the bluegrass world and some, such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Go My Way” and Pierce Pettit’s “Natchez Trace” come from still farther afield. It’s a testament to the band’s ability that all the songs sit so comfortably together and sound so fresh no matter how many versions of these songs we may have heard.
The only question I might have is why Rebel did a compilation, and why now. The band isn’t reforming for a tour, as Claire Lynch is busy with the Claire Lynch Band. In the absence of a tour, it seems that this CD was put together in order to collect some material from releases that are now out of print. Still, that phrase “out of print” has much less meaning these days than it used to. Yes, the physical CDs are no longer being pressed, but it’s easy to wonder where you’d get them even if they were. Alternately, both of the original Front Porch String Band albums are available in digital download, and fans of this music will want to go back to them. All of the songs included there are equally strong, and there are some that probably really should have made the cut for this compilation (such as the beautiful “Heart Against the Wind”). It’s all great stuff. In a sense, Rebel Records might have been better advised to do a box set with some added text. The material is simply good enough to warrant it.