With the onset of spring comes three standout records from Bloodkin’s Daniel Hutchens, North Carolina-based bluegrass band Town Mountain, and Nashville folk-hop group Judah & the Lion.
The Long Road to Redemption
Daniel Hutchens has been delivering Southern rock tunes with a literary bent with his steadfast partner Eric Carter in the underdog band Bloodkin for more than two decades. The band has been scrappily working regional clubs since the early 90s, never quite achieving the success of similar-sounding contemporaries Drivn’ N Cryin’ and the Drive-By Truckers. But as a mainstay in the storied music scene of Athens, Ga., the group has garnered plenty of critical praise and always had the respect of peers. The band’s debut album, 1994’s Good Luck Charm, was produced by Johnny Sandlin (Allman Brothers Band), and multiple Bloodkin songs have reached big crowds in the repertoire of Southern jam kings Widespread Panic.Some admiring musical friends helped out with Hutchens’ new solo record, The Beautiful Vicious Cycle of Life (released April 22). The gritty 11-song effort was produced by Panic’s Dave Schools, who plays bass throughout the album and enlists support from a strong cast of Athens’ best, including producer/musician David Barbe on electric guitar and psych-folk multi-instrumentalist Thayer Sarrano on keyboards. Front and center, though, is Hutchens’ powerful bluesy voice, which howls through the tough truths of a troubled soul with an honest notebook.
Lyrically, Hutchens looks back at the pitfalls of hard living, even when his brawny barroom chords have an upbeat edge. In “Touch Up Time,” he sings, “I smell that coffee burning down the stove, last night what a long sinful road I drove,” over a country rock groove with plenty of Tom Petty swagger. Going deeper is the haunting ballad “American Country Ghosts,” where Hutchens laments a long list of regrets, including bringing cocaine into his 90-year-old mom’s house, while channeling the lyrical wisdom of Patsy Cline and Waylon Jennings. It’s not all dark, though. In the anthemic fist-pumper “Pretty Girls in Summer Dresses” Hutchens finds salvation through family, admitting “I sweated out my poison, I found my power.”
From the Blue Ridge to the Bayou
In a time of continuous genre blurring, fleet-fingered quintet Town Mountain continues to confidently deliver hard-driving straightforward bluegrass tunes that add original character to the genre’s traditional roots. Formed in Asheville, N.C., back in 2005, the group has grown from Appalachian picking party favorites to a nationally lauded act with multiple International Bluegrass Music Association Awards on band members’ shelves.
To make its new album, Southern Crescent (released April 1), the band left the Blue Ridge and traveled south to work with Grammy winner Dirk Powell at his studio in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The record features an expected dose of fast string picking, including the opening fiddle workout “St. Augustine,” but as it unfolds it becomes a well-rounded effort full of front-porch song craft that touches on various shades of roots music. “Leroy’s Reel” has a distinctly Cajun flavor, while “Comin’ Back to You” is a rockabilly dance tune propelled by some boogie-woogie piano.
The band’s backbone is the sturdy voice of front man Robert Greer, who blows off a broken heart in the soulful honky tonk shuffle of “Ain’t Gonna Worry Me” and offers some twangy humor about a bad lover that won’t stay away in “Tick on a Dog.” The standout, though, is “Wildbird,” a classic highway song about curing a restless mind with road miles; perfect for a bluegrass band that sounds pretty comfortable getting outside of its comfort zone.
Judah & the Lion
Mixing Banjo and Beats
Folk, Hop and Roll is a transparent title for this Nashville outfit’s second full-length album. The folk-pop expansionists continue to look well beyond their acoustic roots by boldly incorporating banjo runs with drum machine beats and digital loops. It can be a startling combination, especially in the genre-mashing declarative “Folk-Hop Sound,” which places a skittish hip-hop beat next to walls of synth and bluegrass-phrased mandolin licks. It sounds more seamless in “All I Want is You,” a hair-raising foot-stomper with an emotional crescendo from the Mumford playbook.The album, released last month, was made with Nashville’s Americana hot-streak producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton), who fortunately never lets the sonic swirling overshadow what Judah & the Lion does best—write inspirational pop songs with tight hooks and infectious melodies. Lead vocalist Judah Akers grew up in rural Tennessee playing in worship bands, and he clearly knows how to hype a crowd. The emotional uplift is in full effect when he shout-sings the chorus to “Take It All Back,” an anthem about choosing romance over fame. It’s easy to see how these songs will kill live. Positive vibrations go a long way.