One of the finest contemporary bluegrass bands around is cementing its reputation as same during this, its 30th anniversary year, with the second of three overviews of each decade of its productive existence. Like Volume One, Volume Two of Lonesome River Band’s Chronology comes in at a tidy eight songs, spanning selections the band has chosen from 1994’s Old Country Town album, 1996’s One Step Forward, 1998’s Finding the Way and 2000’s Talkin’ to Myself. The special treat here is a new song to kick off this Chronology. Brandon Rickman, LRB”s outstanding guitarist-singer-songwriter, contributes a cool, midtempo ditty, “Barely Beat the Daylight In,” chronicling the woes of a fellow who hasn’t the self-control to resist staying out all night with his favorite gal, although Rickman’s lyrics make it the clear the gent doth protest too much, betrayed as he is by the song’s sprightly, strutting gait. Mandolinist Randy Jones does the vocal honors with a lively flourish in addition to adding a tasty solo, to which Sammy Shelor, LRB’s rock, adds a spirited banjo solo that is in turn echoed by Mike Hartgrove’s exuberant fiddling. In short, in its composition, musicianship, and emotional conviction, “Barely Beat the Daylight In” pretty much sums up why the Lonesome River Band is still here thirty years on and, indeed, has untold years ahead of it. (Memo to Rhonda Vincent: You could tear this song up. Hint, hint.)
Lonesome River Band, ‘Perfume, Power and Lead,’ from the album Finding the Way and included on Chronology Volume Two. Lead vocal by Brandon Rickman.
Elsewhere times are not quite so freewheeling. Gritty, often black-hearted backwoods tales dot the LRB catalog, and so it is that a few gems of that nature surface here. Dark and ceaselessly despairing, “The Crime I Didn’t Do” is an aggrieved howl, set to a mournful, shuffling rhythm and foreboding fiddle, mandolin and banjo atmospherics, concerning a factory worker’s son who sets out on his own, only to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, without an alibi, and soon sent off to prison, though he is innocent of any wrongdoing. From Finding the Way, Rickman takes a dramatic lead on “Perfume, Power and Lead,” a harrowing tale of a hard working man who, upon learning his new bride has been unfaithful, erupts in a jealous rage, killing her and her lover both. The “living hell” he now finds himself in is effectively evoked in the emotional vocal and in Hartgrove’s searing fiddle soloing. From Old Country Town, Randy Jones serves up a heartbreaking ode to lost love, “Tears Are Blinding Me,” the enduring ache he describes made more emphatic by his own stark mandolin lines, Shelor’s understated banjo and Hartgrove’s crying fiddle. At least there is a balance, though, in the sweet sentiments, buoyant drive and smooth harmonies of “Sweet Sally Brown,” a note-perfect bluegrass love song; and the fellows get out of their funk on the last two songs, “Flat Broke and Lonesome” (from One Step Forward) and “Dog Gone Shame” (from Talkin’ To Myself). Despite its dour subject matter—a fellow’s post-breakup misery–the former has a carefree vibe about it, especially in the upbeat fiddle and banjo fills; and the latter simply explodes out of the gate, a hard charging kissoff driven by Shelor’s frantic banjo and Jones’s vocal, which fairly drips with feigned empathy.
Two decades down, and well represented, with one to go. Look for Volume Three later this month, with tracks selected by LRB fans. Expect surprises.