Locust Mountain Boys,
Back in Time
with Family & Friends

(Catawba, 2005)

As bluegrass bands are wont to do, the Locust Mountain Boys have gone through personnel changes since their last recording, Ode to the Locusts (Catawba, 2003), which I reviewed here early last year. Only two members remain from the previous edition, Steve Carper Jr. (banjo, vocals) and Jesse Carper (mandolin, vocals), joined now by Jeff Johnston (bass fiddle, vocals) and Josh Wilson (guitar). Originally an assemblage of two generations of male Carpers and Dowdys, families with roots in the bluegrass and pre-bluegrass music of Virginia, the LMBs appear to have parted amicably. Steve, Victor and Donald Dowdy show up as guests on a few cuts. So does an older Carper, Steve Sr., who contributes a pleasing version of the old fiddle standard "Soldier's Joy."

This is the sort of record best characterized as solid, as opposed to, say, inspiring. The LMBs put forth a younger, smoother version of the Stanley Brothers mountain sound. As it stands, they're a decent regional band, with -- if they have the ambition and apply themselves -- a shot down the road at a larger bluegrass audience and a bigger name. They have the instrumental chops, and they can sing.

I have never heard them perform live, but their previous disc had a bright, lively ambiance that is muted here, unfortunately. A seasoned listener may have been willing to forgive the occasionally amateurish quality of Ode -- for one thing, a repertoire crowded with warhorses -- because the performances were awash in the joys of exploration and discovery; some members were only in their teens. On Back in Time the sound -- I mean literally the sound that reaches the ear from the playing disc -- is a bit muddy. Moreover, while none of the songs are terrible, many are, once more, wearily familiar. It must be well past time to put "Slewfoot," "Sittin' on Top of the World," "Little Maggie," et al, out to pasture. Yes, they certainly did sound wonderful the first time you heard them -- about a thousand times ago.

The repertoire problem is easily fixable. The LMBs have some friends who, as we learn here, know how to cook up a good tune. "Kiss Me," composed by Donnie Jones, is a marvelous song about enduring married love, with a curiously dark old-time melody that effectively undercuts any temptation to excessive sunshine. The LMBs lend it the right emotional punch, letting us know just how good they can be when they have the right song and hit the proper groove.

Claude Elmore's "Highway to Heaven/Goodbye, Little Joe" is, of all things, a tear-jerking tribute to the late Michael Landon. I don't know why this works -- maybe because it's such a joltingly fresh, even off-the-wall, idea; after all, Landon as actor was nothing special, his television shows pure cornpone -- but it does indeed. While it doesn't tempt me to reconsider Landon's contribution to the performing arts, it does make me want to hear it again.

A little more seasoning, a lot more imaginatively chosen and consistently engaging material, and the LMBs may indeed make their mark. No mark is made here, but they're still young, and the highway to hillbilly heaven stretches before them.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 4 June 2005