They are Angelia Taylor, Della Daniels and Ester Mae Smith, two sisters and a childhood friend from Como, Mississippi.  It was in that small Southern town that these Como Mamas learned the old songs, their voices harmonizing and shouting through the warm air drifting through Mount Moriah Baptist Church. From Como to Brooklyn, they were discovered by Daptone Records, and after a powerful a cappella debut, they’re now backed by Daptone’s Glorifiers band for their second full length, Move Upstairs.  “Oh yeah!”, their voices call and respond. They are voices heavy like the blues, but triumphant and holy.  “Get ready! Get ready!” The Mamas are counting their blessings, one rocking, grooving gospel song at a time. They’re singing along to a bluesy organ, a righteous drum beat, a fiery electric guitar.  They’re shouting. They’re celebrating. They’re giving it their all. 99 and a half just won’t do.

Move Upstairs will be released on May 19 by Daptone Records. You can purchase the record here.


Hello dear readers. I’m taking a few short paragraphs out of my regularly scheduled music reviews and write-ups to point you toward a few of my own music projects. I recently released two very different albums that you can listen to or purchase at the links below.

The first is a 70s-style rock and roll project we call “Killbuck”. The album was mostly recorded live onto a Goodwill-purchased tape recorder, at the end of a gravel back road, in a cabin in Killbuck, Ohio.   Matt Kurtz, John Finley, John King, Joe Farr and I collaborated over a love of dark sunglasses, Tom Petty and 3-chord rock songs. The result is our self-titled debut: 11 “heartland-soaked tunes full of Americana angst and Rust Belt blues”.

The second project is a new volume of hymns my friends and I recorded over the past year. Each of us took a different hymn to reinterpret and explore through our individual styles. All profits from the Harp Family Hymnbook: Vol. II will go to Mennonite Central Committee.

You can find Killbuck here , and the Harp Family Hymnbook Vol. II here.




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 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”.

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There’s no getting around the theology of the Louvin Brothers. It’s right there in the title of their most famous— or infamous— record, Satan is Real. Red and orange flames lick the darkness. And the accuser himself stares us down through empty yellow eyes, a crude statue standing atop a hill of burning tires.

Satan is real, working in spirit…

You can see him and hear him in this world everyday

The brothers’ voices, so matter-of-fact, are barely distinguishable from each other. There’s no fire in their tone. There’s no brimstone in their inflections. Salvation and damnation are as natural as eating and sleeping. And perhaps that is what makes their delivery all the more terrifying.

It’s true that the music on this record has been somewhat overshadowed by that very peculiar picture— the two brothers standing beneath a homemade devil statue, clad in white and breathing in those tire fumes. Their arms are outstretched and pleading us to follow a better road. But put aside your visual concerns (and possibly even your theological ones), and what emerges is a striking, pull-no-punches country masterpiece.   The playing is tight, a skilled Nashville band hitting all the right notes on all the right instruments, moving from sad county waltzes to tent revival celebrations.

The brothers had started off in gospel music, prompted by producer Ken Nelson, but had to fight to move beyond the genre. Charlie, always the straight talker, looked back on those years in his memoir. He writes, “Even though we were singing more and more secular songs, and making good money at it, we never did stop doing the gospel stuff. We wrote a lot of songs that got used for altar calls, and I still get fan mail from people who swear up and down that the Louvin Brothers music saved their life. I doubt if God’ll give us any credit for that though. I fear that we have to do more than write words for the big reward, but it was nice to know that our songs helped a person or two”. It was a few years into their “secular” career that Satan is Real was recorded.

*   *   *

The Louvin Brothers’ life was as harsh as the religion they sang about: hot days in the Alabama cotton fields; cruel beatings at the hand of an abusive father. Ira, the oldest, took the brunt of the violence, and perhaps grew angrier because of it. By some accounts he was a nonbeliever, who early in life was destined to be a preacher. When he chose music over the Good Book, his life took a hard spiral into alcoholism and bitterness that he never recovered from. Perhaps he did believe. Perhaps he drank to escape a chasing God, and lashed out not at his wives or his brother or his band mates, but at the One he was running from.

Whatever the case, a Cain and Abel-like mythology surrounds the two brothers. Charlie was the good, temperate family man. Ira was the resentful, angry womanizer; known to smash his mandolin in fits of rage. As the Louvins career rose in the 50s and early 60s, and fame took them from Louisiana to Nashville to the stage of the Opry, Ira slowly burned every bridge that led them there, until their partnership dissolved in 1963.

It was only 5 years earlier that the brothers had stood together among those burning tires and that peculiar stature, fighting the darkness with their extraordinary harmonies.

*   *   *

In 1965, Ira would leave with his fourth wife to play a solo show in Kansas City. Sometime before he left, he told his mother he was going to use the money from the show to buy a tent and finally start preaching.

Ira was only 41, but he had lived a few lifetimes by then. As a child, his father had beaten him with a fence post until he had lost consciousness. During his second marriage, he had been shot six times by a wife after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. And through it all, he had slowly sunk to the burning depths of alcoholism, fighting and cussing and smashing mandolins all the way down. Maybe, one hopes, he was about to crawl out again, and find a little redemption amid the cruel world he was able to characterize so well in his songs. And perhaps, before the shattering of glass and the collision of metal that robbed him of any future, he had found that redemption, or saw that light, or heard those angels rejoicing.

The irony wasn’t lost on anyone. Driving home from that Kansas City show, his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver, killing him and his wife instantly. It was a story as tragic as any the Louvins sang about. Bill Monroe gave a mournful rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the funeral. The voices of Charlie and Ira would never merge and beguile again.

Charlie would go onto a prolific solo career, eventually fighting the same fight that many of the country legends do— finding relevance amidst the harsh light of younger Nashville stars. But just like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and many others, Charlie re-emerged in his old age as a seasoned county icon, recording a string of albums at the end of his life for independent label, Tompkins Square Records. His voice isn’t as recognizable without the ghostly harmonies of brother Ira, but Charlie stuck to each word like it was Biblical truth, and the music— love songs and murder ballads, and of course, gospel hymns— continued to pull no punches. It was as matter-of-fact as it was in the 1956, reflecting a faith that had been callused by death and disease and every kind of hardship, but alive and real nonetheless. He writes, “…if you think you can do anything you want and still go to heaven, you’re full of shit. God’s always right there when you think you’re getting away with something. There’s nothing that escapes him and nothing he doesn’t know”.

Charlie, singing and playing till the end, died in 2011 after a long fight with pancreatic cancer.

Information was gathered from Charlie Louvin’s autobiography, Satan is Real, and Charles Wolfe’s In Close Harmony: the Story of the Louvin Brothers.