Old South is a veteran bluegrass quintet hailing from Adelaide in southern Australia. They have experience, enthusiasm, a nice repertoire of original songs written in the traditional style, and a resonator guitarist named Leonard Cohen (who really should look into teaming up with the Seldom Scene’s Lou Reid and mandolinist Joe Walsh to put together a band that will confuse the heck out of everyone.)
They also have two qualities that might make it harder for them to make as big a splash in the worldwide bluegrass scene as so many others have. First of all, their harmonies are a bit bottom-heavy, with occasional four-parts with bass on non-gospel numbers and a generally glaring absence of that high-lonesome sound that a good tenor and a tight harmonic blend can give a band, although bassist Dave Taylor does his best to supply that tenor part when he can. Secondly, while Old South is a generally solid group of instrumentalists, some of the recorded breaks are sometimes just a bit sloppy, at least enough to be noticed. So although most of the breaks from mandolinist Andrew Hook, banjoist Geoff Bridgland, and Cohen are solid and interesting, the overall effect is that of a band project that could have used just a few more takes and a bit more stringent production.
Which is unfortunate, because there are a lot of appealing elements to this band. Rhythm guitarist Phill Parker has contributed eight of his original songs, including “Have I Done Enough For You,” a very nice piece that evokes the Carter Family’s simplicity and earnestness. They also perform a very admirable harmonized rendition of Dirk Powell’s wonderful rewrite of the ballad “Waterbound.” Bridgland’s banjo introduction and the chorus harmonies on “Long Hard Time” show how solid and driving Old South can be when captured at their very best. And how can you not like a band whose banjoist’s resumé includes playing with the Wombat Holler String Band.
The Hanging Tree is a CD that teases the listener with a taste of what is probably a fun live band with a largely distinctive repertoire. I hope—failing an unexpected but welcome opportunity to journey Down Under to see them in person—that their next recording has just enough extra polish to show them at their best. (www.australianbluegrass.com/shop)HK