Saturday, August 26, 2006

CD REVIEW: James Reams and the Barnstormers' "Troubled Times"

Label: Mountain Redbird Music

Bill Monroe lives! Bill Monroe lives!

Okay, well unfortunately this isn’t entirely true, for Mr. Monroe passed away in 1996. However, the wonderful style of music he is credited with creating, bluegrass, is alive and well in the new millennium. Those of you who only know of the modern country scene presented by country radio and CMT are likely thinking I am crazy, but a few outstanding bands in the underground music community have me not only celebrating bluegrass’s past, but its present as well. One of these bands is James Reams and the Barnstormers and their 2005 release Troubled Times is an indicator of the band’s tremendous talent.

One of the many reasons that Troubled Times is such a great listen is the quality of the music. A single spin of the album is enough for one to conclude that it is bluegrass at its best. Reams is a wonderful bluegrass vocalist and delivers each song with a voice straight out of the 1940s, and band mates Carl Hayano and Mark Farrell provide effective complementary backing vocals. The musicianship is equally impressive, especially Farrell’s work on mandolin and fiddle, and the banjo-playing of Mickey Maguire, which is good enough to bring a smile to even Earl Scruggs’s face. This is no attempt to shrug off Reams as a guitarist or Hayano as a bassist, however, for they do a fine job as well. There are no better examples of this excellent musicianship than on the album’s three cookin’ instrumentals: a cover of country fiddle legend Arthur Smith’s “Lost Train Blues” and Maguire’s originals “Erin’s Flight” and “Lost Forest.” Troubled Times proves that James Reams and the Barnstormers are not only well schooled in the old school bluegrass sound, but have mastered it.

While the music is outstanding, what makes the album so memorable is the song-by-song quality. Filled with great bluegrass covers, Troubled Times is appropriately titled. Bluegrass may have a lively sound, but overall, this record has a dark aura. This is established right from the beginning with the classic “Head of the Holler,” which, despite its deceivingly happy sound, contains a harsh warning to anyone who might consider moving in on the speaker’s woman. This early warning tells listeners that happy love songs will not be found on Troubled Times. “You Better Wake Up” features a fed-up husband telling his wife that he’s sick of her ways and is about ready to make like Hank Williams and become a long gone daddy. Other songs dealing with men and women take a much more violent turn. “Cruel Willie” tells the tale of a man who mistreats one woman too many, and ends up paying for it with his life, while the outstanding Robbie Fulks cover “Cold Statesville Ground” is one of the best murder ballads ever written. The Barnstormers’ version of this masterpiece surprisingly lives up to Fulks’ original. The album also contains songs about religion including “Lazarus,” which warns listeners that they can’t buy their way into heaven, and the traditional number “Cool Down on the Banks of Jordan,” which finds the Lord calling the troubled and weary down to the river to find eternal happiness and salvation. Finally, some songs simply deal with life’s rocky path (“Ain’ta Bump in the Road”) and hard work (“Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues”).

However, the best of these “troubled times” come from James Reams’ own pen. The album contains three Reams originals (two of which were co-written with usual songwriting partner Tina Aridas), and all three are standouts. The heartbreaking title track finds Reams lamenting about the loss of a family farm to a bank foreclosure, and in perhaps the album’s finest track, “The Hills of My County,” while watching mining companies destroy his county, friends, and family, he ponders whether or not God wishes He had never “blessed” the hills with coal. Finally, the album’s most interesting track, “Eye of the Storm,” has a couple of possible meanings. Literally, it plays out like a tragic Hurricane Katrina story where a man makes the mistake of attempting to wait out the storm and loses everything. The “storm” can also have a figurative meaning though, representing, appropriately enough, any troubled time in the song’s family’s life. Whether or not the storm is real or a metaphor for something else is up to the listener, giving it a kind of depth not found in the average bluegrass number.

In the year 2006, we are now without most of the bluegrass legends that made the genre so great. We lost Jimmy Martin last year. It’s been a decade since Bill Monroe left us, and several years more since Lester Flatt left Earl Scruggs to join heaven’s angel band. Fortunately, thanks to bands like James Reams and the Barnstormers, it has been ensured that bluegrass will not die along with its creators. Troubled Times, along with its bonus DVD, which includes over 100 minutes of outstanding bluegrass documentary, is Reams and his band’s statement to the world that not only do they want to help listeners remember bluegrass’s history, but that they are ready to lead the genre into the future.

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