Locust Mountain Boys, |
Ode to the Locusts
Gazing at the album cover for the first time, I felt the old, familiar queasiness in the pit of the stomach. There are five members of the Locust Mountain Boys, and three of them are literally boys, not out of their teens -- at least two of them unlikely to leave them anytime soon, either. Veteran bluegrass listeners know how it works: a bunch of kids, undoubtedly talented, just as undoubtedly callow (and who isn't in those years), with little more than hot licks to carry them through that period of experiential deficiency. Crowd-pleasing, surely, but soon enough mortally boring. Boys, was I wrong.
The Locust Mountain Boys are two families from Virginia's Blue Ridge, bassist Victor Dowdy and sons Steve and Donald, banjoist Steve "Coop" Carper and son Jesse. The liner notes observe, "The Carper Family is now in the fifth generation of playing mountain and bluegrass music." Victor Dowdy is an award-winning instrumentalist with long experience. It all shows: not just the picking skills, but the deep roots in the Appalachian tradition at that intersection where bluegrass meets early commercial country and authentic mountain music.
The CD also validates my longtime belief that a bluegrass record that includes "the Lord our Savior" in the credits is the real deal. If you wear your faith on your sleeve, you're likely to play and sing from the heart and give no thought to looking cool while you're doing it. I think it's called honesty.
You can't fake it. Either you chill the heart of the listener with the lonesome wind blowing down from the high atmosphere or you don't. Not, of course, that you can't make good nontraditional bluegrass, and people do every day. It's just that some of us prefer it pure and bracing, cold and raw. It was that sound that brought me to bluegrass back in the 1960s, and it's the stuff that still moves this fan's soul.
Yes, it's true that these guys owe a debt to the Stanley Brothers, more specifically to the great records that Ralph Stanley did after Carter's death in 1966, when he dug up traditional songs and tunes from his youth, let himself play clawhammer -- pre-bluegrass -- banjo on occasion, and freed that incredible voice (heretofore, the smoother-sounding Carter had done the bulk of the lead singing). At least three, possibly four, of the old-time songs here are learned from Stanley records, including "Rocky Island," which after Ralph's version one would think only a fool would touch. The Locusts' version is, however, gritty and gorgeous enough in its own right to satisfy the demands of the most jaded listener.
The other songs are mostly, though not entirely, familiar, "I'll Go Stepping Too" from the Flatt & Scruggs repertoire, "Molly and Tenbrooks" and "White House Blues" from Bill Monroe's. Amazingly, the Locusts manage to make them sound fresh. There is also Larry Sparks's wonderful "Too Much Mountain Dew," which I hadn't heard in many years and which richly deserves resurrection. The two originals, "Open Up Your Heart" and the title tune, stand comfortably in these elevated ranks. If these are any indication -- I assume they are -- one hopes for more next time around. These guys have it all.