The Bucking Mules,
Smoke Behind the Clouds
(Free Dirt, 2017)

I first heard oldtime Appalachian music in South Dakota on an Iowa radio station. Over the course of my life, as one who has lived nowhere but in the Upper Midwest, the amount of time I've spent in Appalachia's geographical home can be measured in about two or three weeks. That first hearing (in early 1966 if memory, an ever more directionless driver, steers me right) rattled me in the same way, a little later, that my first exposure to Mississippi blues would. The moral of the story: Great music only starts somewhere. It doesn't end there, and it travels well. Naturally, as is so often the case with art that first startles, even frightens, both styles have stayed with me and served me well in good times and bad.

Smoke Behind the Clouds will serve you well whether you're new or old to mountain music. As with Hog Eyed Man (whose most recent release I reviewed in this space on 25 March 2017) the Bucking Mules hold steadfastly to the tradition, which unlike some contemporary bands they have no desire to revise or reinvent. The Mules aren't blatant imitators -- no question, they bring their own strong musical personalities to the ball -- but this isn't some species of "Americana." It's the real deal, the organic product of rich regional soil.

If you've been listening to this sort of thing as long as I have, you pay attention to what's distinctive about what you're hearing. Among the items at the top of the list is repertoire. Even the most conscientious bands can't escape recycling some old favorites which you may or may not mind listening to yet again, usually depending on whether the performers are able to make something fresh of them. Here, the chestnuts, by my imprecise count, amount to no more than five (e.g., "Fire on the Mountain," "The Soldier & the Lady") of the 17 cuts, and they sound wonderful, as bright and rewarding as the more obscure numbers such as "Ruffled Drawers" and "Wild Geese at Flight."

Of the songs -- the album is divided approximately evenly between instrumental pieces and vocals -- I suspect, notwithstanding the robust competition (the title tune, "Railroad," "More Good Women Gone Wrong"), that most listeners will be especially enamored of "Jasper Jail." Set to a traditional melody, it's the apparently true misadventures of composer Hamper McBee, described as "moonshiner, singer, and carnival barker." McBee cheerfully recalls his days drinking, carrying on and running afoul of the law. In fact, nothing fails to delight anywhere amid Smoke Behind the Clouds.

The band is made up of Joseph Decosimo (fiddle, banjo, vocals), Luke Richardson (banjo, harmonica, vocals), Karen Celia Heil (guitar, vocals) and Joe Dejarnette (bass, vocals). All but Heil, active in the Bay Area's oldtime scene, are natives of the region. Decosimo, a folklorist, is an academic authority on the music. The liner notes, which document their sources, attest to the Mules' diligence and authority, the grooves to their mastery of what they know. If you love oldtime music generally, what the Mules do and how they do it is why.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 May 2017

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new