From the opening notes of their latest album, Volunteer, the first to feature electric guitar in 14 years, you know the Grammy award-winning outfit have a good time in store for you, even if the song lyrics aren’t necessarily always as upbeat as the tunes. That said, the footstomping, handclapping ‘Flicker & Shine’ is a fast and furious anthem to unity as they sing how “All together we fall together we ride together we’re wild together All together we fall together every little light will flicker and shine” the song, almost impossibly getting even faster towards the close.
There’s not much community spirit going down though in ‘A World Away’, its jaunty harmonica chugging melody couching a refugee-tinged lyric about being the perpetual one on the other side of the door trying to get in, be it at the party or the pearly gates.
Taking a bluesier turn and again featuring Ketch Secor’s harmonica chops, the choogling midtempo ‘Child of the Mississippi’ pretty much speaks for itself and its lyric about “a barefoot boy born in Dixieland” growing up on and missing the muddy banks. It’s followed by another celebration of being raised and living and loving in the south, Rockingham County to be precise, twangy guitar and Morgan Jahnig’s upright bass underpinning the honky tonk line-dancing flavoured, whistling along ‘Dixie Avenue’ with its call to “rattle our bones before they lay us to rest.”
Secor’s love of the South is also to the fore on the slower, more meditative ‘Look Away’, echoes of The Band in evidence as he sings how “this is the land where salvation ain’t a dirty word” while fiddle, 12 string guitar and pedal steel colour its sweet and sad lyrics and, yes, the title refrain does evoke Dixie’s unofficial national anthem.
It’s back to a handclapping, foot stomping, holler out hoe down with the fiddle blazing ‘Shout Mountain Music’ as Critter Fuqua takes on lead vocals for its party on call to boogaloo your blues, cut a rug and swing your partners until the sun comes up. It stays in a party mood but shifts towards Western Swing with Kevin Haynes singing lead on his own ‘The Good Stuff’, another number that sums itself up in the title as Cory Youts tinkles the saloon ivories.
There’s only two story songs here, the first up being ‘Old Hickory’, again evoking The Band (notably ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’) in its tale of Virgil Lee, a flatwoods boy who could play guitar and channel the pain of the blues like an Opry star but “mistook the devil for a dear friend” and “ultimately got too big for (his) britches” and now “nobody remembers his name.”
Written by Secor, ‘Homecoming Party’ is a sort of negative zone ‘Gentle On My Mind’, to which the melody has a presumably intentional resemblance, reversing the sentiments of John Hartford’s lyrics for a song about a travelling musician coming home “weary and wasted”, taking a sleeping pill so he won’t hear the kids calling him and wary of waking the wife (“when our bodies touch I’ll pull away and not disturb her/Even though I long for love so much it hurts”), and hoping that “Maybe we won’t argue in the morning.”
The traditional ‘Elzick’s Farewell’ provides a fiery instrumental featuring fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitjo before things close up on the second narrative, the pedal steel streaked gently rolling along ‘Whirlwind’, Chance McCoy on electric guitar, conjuring the folk-country musical spirit of Steve Goodman and Gordon Lightfoot in a love song about surviving the hardships and celebrating the joys of twirling twister of life (“There were babies died and babies born, flood and drought and world war…and every town another chance To try and build a winning hand, even when the cards were stacked against”) defying the storms to go “racing home down rainy streets.” Enlist now.
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‘Flicker & Shine’: