Hard times and more hard times. A “Harlan Man” without career options is crushed by falling coal. The ghost of “Mary Flynn,” killed by her lover, walks ceaselessly. Another murdered woman begs “Remember Me,” while other locals suffer with a “Cold And Withered” heart, or in their isolation are on the “Outside Looking In.” Elsewhere we hear of a “Train Of Sorrow” and a “Lonely Road” and pray the “Miner’s Prayer.” There doesn’t seem to be much positive in Cumberland River’s part of the world.
You may know of the Harlan County-based Cumberland River from hearing their songs on the cable television drama Justified. That’s the kind of exposure bluegrass bands dream of, and the band is determined to make the most of it, showcasing their blend of tradition and contemporary styles on their Rural Rhythm debut. In the band are banjoist James Dean, bassist Joey Jones, mandolinist Dustin Middleton, guitarist Andy Buckner and fiddler Justin Moses—fine players all.
Dean, Middleton, and Buckner share the lead vocals, though I’m only sure of the songs Middleton sings. Of the three, he has the most interesting voice. His raspy, weathered baritone is casting-call perfect for the gritty “Harlan Man,” the haunting “Mary Flynn” and especially for putting forth the angst and stress of “This Life I Live.” As for the other two, though the liner notes don’t say, I think Dean is the higher, more anguished lead, at its best on the almost frantic “Cold And Withered.” That leaves Buckner as the smoother voice found leading “Outside Looking In.” Either way, the band boasts three distinct and compelling lead voices.
That their songs (all 13 are band originals) deal with hard times is to be expected, since you write best what you know, but they also bring to each a sense of dignity, compassion and pride. That makes for an honest and good debut. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040 Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BW