November 27, 2016
I realized a few days ago, after listening to Lenny Smith’s new record amid the hurricane of a new election season, that the last time Lenny Smith released an album was during an election as well—and a tumultuous one at that. Harsh words were thrown back and forth. Brother turned on brother. And the world was all set to end.
Yet here we are, 4 years later, and the world’s still spinning. The rhetoric feels particularly brutal this time around, but maybe that’s because time really does heal all wounds—even political ones—and we fail to see history repeating itself as time spills out before us. All of this to say that Lenny Smith’s record, “You Are My Hiding Place”, has arrived from Great Comfort Records. It is full of life and love and celebration, and it serves as a nice antidote to the hate and fear that abounds. Once again, Lenny dives deep into scripture, looking to the poetry of the psalmists, of Ruth, of Jesus himself, to gives words to his worship. His family and friends sing and clap and shout along. Really, I think the world could use a little Lenny Smith right now.
November 9, 2016
From the liner notes to their new record I Have Seen the End, the young band “Brock’s Folly” appear to be entering an early retirement. A few albums under their belt, the energetic, theologically-minded five-piece formed while studying at Bryan College in Tennessee. The members have since graduated and the new project feels like a master thesis, reflecting on all that’s happened across a short discography. The band’s theology is mature, taking a hard look at hypocrisy, pride, and redemption both outward, in a world full of pain and violence; and inward—at hearts drowning in ego and corruption. Heavy themes indeed, but they never overwhelm. Every hard truth rides atop a wild folk melody, and grace—the amazing kind—abounds.
September 5, 2016
I have finally realized
all the glory that’s in me
is only your glory.
So sings Andrew Fry on his project Celebration Symphony Orchestra. The music of Fry and his makeshift group of friends and family, reminds me of one those dark nights of the soul—or at least the morning after—where after a long hour, day, week of apathy or anger, the prodigal finally turns around and lays it bare. It’s Jonah’s dive into vicious waters. It’s Jacob wrestling with the angel. It’s the lonely sinner, ceding to grace, allowing some holy light into the dirty old barn of his/her soul. It’s all of these things, riding over wild, beautiful melodies.
You can listen to or purchase their music here.
August 23, 2016
When I was younger, I believed in a mystical highway that stretched through the deserts and mountains and byways of America. It beckoned the wandering hearts of lost prodigals. Its asphalt would hum beneath your feet as you pressed down on a gas pedal. But as I got older, and I had been down a road or two, that highway began to lose its magic. I stopped believing in mystery and the power of the open road. I see visions of that lost highway again when I listen to Wesley Randolph Eader’s new record, Highway Winds. I see Woody Guthrie riding a boxcar. I hear Townes Van Zandt singing stories in an old saloon. I see mountain ranges in the far distance, and desert stretched out all around. I find saints and sinners, and I see redemption somewhere on the distant rise. I hear and see and feel it all again. I am swept up in the mystery of the road. This is the wonder of Highway Winds.
You can listen to and purchase the album here.
July 8, 2016
I dreamed about Ralph Stanley the day after he died. I was feeling ill. I crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep. Over the years, I had visited his hometown a few times, circling to and fro across the caustic back roads of Clinch Mountain. I had once stopped at his house and knocked on his front door, hoping to shake the good doctor’s hand. No one came to the porch but a wandering dog. I read his book, bought his records. And I had stood before his brother’s grave, atop a mountain in the afternoon hours.
I saw Dr. Ralph on stage a number of times in those final years as well. He needed a chair to sit through those sets. His grandson and his band would do most of the work. But every so often he would stand up, he would approach the microphone, and he would drown the audience in that chilling mountain voice.
The dream was short. I found myself in some ghostly façade of the Appalachian south. My family was there. We rode bikes on roads that were too wide and too straight. I don’t remember if Dr. Ralph had even showed up in the dream—only that his essence hovered around it all. I parked my bike at the foot of the Ralph Stanley Museum. It was not the great Victorian house that sits on a hill in Clintwood, Virginia, but a lonely cabin on the side of a highway.
The dream came and the dream went.
I think I experience Dr. Ralph’s music a little differently than most of his fans. I admire the union of voices that the Stanley Brothers created when they sang, the craftsmanship of those bluegrass melodies, but really, I’ve never been much for bluegrass. And as important as his claw hammer banjo is to American roots music, it doesn’t give me pause, or hit me on the head like John Henry’s hammer. With Stanley, it has always been the cold hard lonesomeness that speaks to me. It is that voice, full of Primitive Baptist severity that I won’t forget.
Everything I love about Dr. Ralph comes to a crescendo of Appalachian simplicity on the traditional gospel ballad “Two Coats”. On the closing song from 1972’s Cry from the Cross, a lonesome fiddle floats along on a minor rhythm. Stanley’s voice is as serious as ever. He sings of salvation, of throwing off the old coat of worldly degradation and putting on a new, holy one. He pulls no punches. He adds no flourish or poetry. It’s the aesthetic by which he lived his life. What choice do we have but to believe every word of it?
The dream has since faded. The mountain and the road and the cabin on the hill are gone. Dr. Ralph is gone.
I hope that someday I will knock on a front door and someone will answer. I hope that someday, some light can be shed upon the fractured dream that we all walk around in. And I hope that Dr. Ralph has thrown off the old coat, and that the man of constant sorrow will sorrow no more.
Information gathered from Stanley’s autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow”.