Dry Branch Fire Squad,
Hand Hewn
(Rounder, 2001)

In J.D. Rhynes' liner notes for this CD, he describes Dry Branch Fire Squad as "the one true link between old-timey and bluegrass music." While I'm not so sure about Dry Branch being the only band working this vein, it describes their musical philosophy well. The band's music seems to hail from an earlier time, and Hand Hewn is no exception. It's an album with a raw-boned sound that has old roots, but which often surprises the listener with its musical sophistication.

For example, "Angelina Baker," the first track, is a blend of the old fiddle tune and a Stephen Foster song (talk about roots!) that ends in a quirky, modern manner on an unresolved chord. Those little surprises are what make Dry Branch so much fun. Just as you're getting into a primitive, backwoods mood, along comes something that tweaks your ears and surprises your expectations.

There's old-time flavor a-plenty in "I Saw a Man at the Close of Day," an old Grayson-Whittier song, and "I Can Go to Them" is an a cappella gospel song done to harmonic perfection. The instrumental "Nazeer, Nazeer" is named for lead singer Ron Thomason's racehorse. It's a hard-driving tune with Thomason's mandolin work very reminiscent of Bill Monroe (not a bad thing at all). There's a fine vocal duet between Thomason and Suzanne Thomas in "Atlanta Is Burning," a great Civil War song, followed by "Willye Brennan," an interesting variation on what most of us know as "Brennan on the Moor." It's a nice reminder that Celtic music was the source from which so much American rural music sprang.

Two more Thomason/Thomas duets are next. "While Roving on Last Winter's Night" is spiced with some lovely mandolin fills between the verses, and "Sailor's Return" also provides a showcase for Bobby Maynard's Scruggs-style banjo playing. The great Hazel Dickens replaces Suzanne Thomas on the next duet, Dickens' powerful song, "Black Lung." The vocal pitches aren't always perfect on this one, but the emotions expressed certainly are.

"The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird" is still one of the finest and most haunting traditional ballads, and Suzanne Thomas's solo, accompanying herself on banjo, is one of the CD's prime cuts. You'll find yourself in the good ol' gospel vein next, with Ralph Stanley's "Two Coats." It's a real spiritual rouser. Thomason's vocal pitch problems crop up again on "Midnight, the Unconquered Outlaw," a hearty cowboy ballad, and it weakens the song considerably. There's a difference between blue notes and flat ones. He makes up for it, however, with "I'll Live Again," a wonderful gospel song with some right-on, A-440 perfect harmonies.

"Papa's Billy Goat" shows Thomason at his hamboning best, though I've always felt that the fine art of whapping yourself percussively was more fun seen in person than heard on disc. A dandy instrumental, "Lonesome Road Blues," wraps things up, with some stellar picking from all involved.

Dry Branch fans will find much to enjoy on this new album, and lovers of bluegrass and old-time music who have somehow managed to miss this rousing band will find it a good introduction. The sound is a little rough, a little "hand-hewn," but never less than involving and nearly always a delight.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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