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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.

You can listen to and purchase the recording at Lenny’s bandcamp page here, or explore more at Great Comfort Records.

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I Have Seen the End 4Panel Digi.indd

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.

You can listen to and purchase their music here, or explore their work with the Nehemiah Foundation for Cultural Renewal here.

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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”.

bright

This is an older review of the Wonderful Mountain’s “Bright Week”, originally posted on this site in July of 2013.

At the beginning of his new album, Bright Week, Chad Marine (a.k.a. the Wonderful Mountain) sings of Saint Antony, the patron of lost things and people. Over a rushed guitar strum, the artist sings,

I fell into the flood

In body and in blood

And I came up bright.

Though the words are profound and spoken with outright seriousness, the song borders on joviality (a far stretch from Marine’s previous work), but I suspect it’s with good reason.  He says that the album coincided with his Baptism through the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The songs seem to reflect that Baptism, and the pilgrimage that led to it.  They are populated by holy Saints of the tradition, by moments of spiritual clarity, and by a renewed sense of joy.  He says that there was nothing specific tying the songs together, but listening to them, I can hear themes of rebirth and restoration (and the joy that follows) written all over it.

He translates the tale of martyred Saint Catherine and the paranormal destruction of a torture wheel into a rousing folk number that sounds like a lost Carter Family song.  He draws inspiration from the old story of the righteous pelican that wounded herself to feed her young.  The stories are ancient, passed down for generations, but they’re full of spiritual vigor and brimming with holy relevance.

There has always been a heavy sense of impending righteousness in Marine’s songs, and though it’s still here, his focus has turned to something that’s, well, brighter.   Near the end of the album, perhaps guided home by Saint Antony himself, the artist casts off the pessimism of the world and sheds that unholy darkness that so easily binds us.  He gently beckons,

Let’s sing no more songs of hopelessness…

Amazing what a little divine perspective can do.

Bright Week can be found at https://thewonderfulmountain.bandcamp.com/album/bright-week

Benjamin

It’s easy to sink into indifference. Looking out upon a world drenched in blood and smoke, it’s tempting to turn your back—to hitch a first class ticket onto a gospel train bound for Glory, while the world is left to smolder along the track. That is why it’s necessary to have a folk singer like David Benjamin Blower around. Blower follows a long line of prophets and protest singers—from Elijah to Woody Guthrie—who shift our gaze outward, to the greed and exploitation that burns in the world. His latest record, Welcome the Stranger, is immediate and fierce, drawing on the empirical imagery of the Old and New Testaments, and the Dust Bowl tunes of Guthrie, reminding us all that the world didn’t get better after the dust of the Great Depression settled. He sings of the displaced and the refugee, giving voice to their hardship. He sings with love, with brutality, and with anger, using his guitar and voice as a jackhammer to smash through the apathy of our age.

You can listen to and purchase the album at https://benjaminblower.bandcamp.com/

All proceeds from the record will go to charities working directly with refugees.