Blind Corn Liquor Pickers,
Appalachian Trail
(independent, 2008)

Let's start with an obvious truth, obvious truths being in rare supply when the subject is so elusive an entity as the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. Which is to say that any band able to conceive, and then write plausibly, a song titled "Intelligent Design" merits our awed regard. Yes, I suppose in its prime the Incredible String Band could have done the same, and it would be mystical and beautiful, too, and probably a sound-alike to the ISB's 16-minute epic "Creation" (Changing Horses, 1969). But the BCLP are funny about it, and -- at a crisp 3:38 -- a whole lot more succinct. "ID" is about ... well, it's not about creationism by another name; yet then again, it sort of is. It turns out to be a bluegrass song about a blue-collar loser who expresses his plight in words that hilariously echo the jargon of an evolutionary biologist:

It's just the tools I was given...
I've got a bipedal gait...
I've got opposable digits...
I've got a skill for using tools...
I've got a faculty for reason.

Yet, asks the bewildered, beleaguered narrator, "If the design is so intelligent / Can you explain the shape I'm in?" If you put it that way, who hasn't wondered that?

Travis Young, banjo, vocalist and co-composer for the band, tells me that serious consideration was given to titling this album (their third) after the song. Too bad that it got another, not quite so interesting. But of course we rarely buy records for their titles alone, and potential consumers will want to know that Appalachian Trail continues the delirious twisted-bluegrass sound of its predecessor, Anywhere Else?, which I reviewed in this space on 28 January 2006. Four members are now five, with the addition of singer Beth Walker (whom one would have no trouble imagining at the front of an r&b band). Samuel Kruer has replaced Todd Anderson on bass. Tom Fassas continues on guitar and vocals, as does Joel Serdenis on mandolin, fiddle and vocals. Four guest musicians on various instruments -- fiddle, bodhran, trumpet and melodica -- pop in here and there.

Probably, this sort of thing began with the Holy Modal Rounders in the 1960s. By "this sort of thing" I mean hipsters posing, if not terribly hard, as hillbillies. The BCLP's very name amounts to an over-the-top parody of bluegrass-band names, usually meant to evoke a mythic Southern backwoods and all that implies, in this instance not excluding physical disabilities occasioned by the consumption of cheap, unregulated 'shine. The BCLP, based in Lexington, Kentucky, have the distinction of being superior musicians whose affection for the bluegrass genre, along with broadly related Celtic, mountain, jug-band and honkytonk traditions, is never in doubt. In fact, when they play it straight, the effect is lovely and even manages to draw un-ironic tears. There is, for example, the pretty, affecting "Yellow Roses," a band original like everything else here, and not to be confused with other songs of the same name. "Charlie the Bastard," a decidedly unfunny ballad based, one suspects, on actual events, chronicles a violent man's bloody end in the Southern mountains, ca. 1933.

At other times, as in the title tune and in the aforementioned "Intelligent Design," the band is playing something like the recognizably rolling twang of bluegrass, except backwards. Plenty of songs in the genre call the listener to imagine riding trains and buses or to think back to the old homestead, but nobody travels the lost highways or dreams of the log cabin on the hill the way the BCLR do, or with rhythms akin to theirs. By the time you pass down Appalachian Trail, even the most familiar spots along the road will start to feel like places you've never seen before. It can get confusing, all right, but don't worry. It's the best kind of confusing -- all surprise and delight, with the kind of shock that engenders unexpected laughter. I love these guys.

review by
Jerome Clark

11 October 2008

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new