By Greg Cahill
Here’s the perfect pairing of America’s box-car poet laureate and an acclaimed bluegrass act steeped in mountain music. The red-hot Del McCoury Band, led by bluegrass patriarch Del McCoury on vocals and guitar, lends its high-lonesome, fiddle-and-mandolin-driven charm to a dozen previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. The album is produced by Nora Guthrie, the late folksinger and songwriter’s daughter. In 1998, Nora had given the lyrics to another batch of Woody’s then–unrecorded songs to Billy Bragg and Wilco for what became three albums, including the Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue. She takes the same approach here, having tapped into the McCoury heard in the late ’90s when Steve Earle teamed up with the band on his album The Mountain.
In McCoury’s hands, these songs sound like they were born to be bluegrass.
But don’t look for defiant anthems (“This Land is Your Land”) or sagas about robbers-turned-folk heroes (“Pretty Boy Floyd”). Rather, these down-home, often humorous vignettes chronicle working-class heroes (“Dirty Overhalls), roving fathers (“Little Fellow”), backwood bootleggers (“Hoecake Fritters”), and frustrated suitors (“Ain a Gonna Do”).
Indeed, there’s a joyfulness to these recordings, perhaps to be expected from a singer who can perform heart-stopping spirituals. For example, “Left in This World Alone,” a lonely traveler’s lament that could be performed as a heart-breaking ballad, is elevated to a jaunty but impassioned mid-tempo plea in McCoury’s caring hands. The opening track, “The New York Trains,” delivers an urban setting for McCoury’s boom-chuck Gibson and the band’s Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin in a gentle song about country folk making their first visit to the big city. The light-hearted “Cheap Mike” recounts the woes of a man swindled by a used-car salesman but determined to get the mechanic to make it right. Even the prisoner pounding rock on “The Government Road,” an ode to the federal WPA projects that helped lift America out of the Great Depression, sounds not just resigned, but proud of his toil.
The result is a bluegrass album that not only sounds great, but also feels good.
Who could ask for more?