Dirty River: (from left) Evan Sands, Gary Cole, Billy Park, Michael Barton, John Relph (Photo: Ed Henry)

Ride This Train
By David McGee

Dirty River
Dirty River Publishing

If the Grascals, Blue Highway, Dailey & Vincent, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, the Del McCoury Band and such come at their listeners with the force of mighty waters, the relative newcomers out of Washington, D.C. known as Dirty River are more like the genre’s rippling stream. The quintet’s debut album, centered on the John Fogerty song “Graveyard Train,” is admirable on many levels, not least of them the measured, easygoing pace it maintains from start to finish. It coerces and caresses, but is never too persistent on either count. Dirty River sounds like a band that knows itself, is comfortable in its collective skin, and suggests the listener either accept it on those terms or find other means to entertain yourself.

In Billy Park (guitar) and Evan Sands (banjo), Dirty River has two outstanding vocalists whose secret weapon is the tuneful but conversational qualities of their voices. They sound like people you want to spend some time with—Park even has that frisky, bemused quality in his voice that summons warm memories of the late, sorely missed Steve Goodman, never more so than on the closing benediction, “Backroads,” written (and sung) by Park, that closes the proceedings with a touching reminiscence of the old home place and what it means in the larger scheme of the singer’s life (he muses about buying back his old family house). Park is channeling Goodman in his affecting, emotionally resonant phrasing that underscores the depth of feeling he’s trying to summon from his soul. There’s a little tear in his voice in an otherwise upbeat arrangement, an effect Goodman used so well to put a soulful spin on a story without becoming maudlin.

Dirty River, ‘Mr. Spaceman,’ at the Country Gentlemen Bluegrass Festival, Watermelon Park, Berryville, VA, July 11, 2008

Roger McGuinn performs ‘Mr. Spaceman’ at Calliope, Pittsburgh, PA, March 29, 2008

This is but one part of the Dirty River story as it unfolds here. Musically the players are admirably solid and tight. You don’t have to wait long to find out this fact—the second song, “Hundred Dollar Bill,” is a jubilant instrumental by dobro master Michael Barton, who uses the occasion to launch into a strikingly textured solo on his instrument before ceding ground to John Relph, who promptly works his way up and around the mandolin neck until he’s about out of room, at which point Sands come romping in on banjo to continue the debate with his own lively, rolling retort to those who came before, leaving Barton with plenty of room to riff and rip on the dobro again before sending it out with a smooth, rich swoop of the slide. And again, though they maintain their low-key approach, the same lineup turns up the flame, delightfully so, in a jubilant sprint through the traditional “Cherokee Shuffle,” always remembering to honor the beautiful, affecting melody even as each musician fluidly speed picks his way through a solo turn with jaw dropping ease.

In Sands’s weary album opener, “Ragged Mile,” the singer intones, “I pray to John Henry, I pray to Bill Monroe/the patron saints of the low-down soul.” Those low-down souls dominate the narratives in Graveyard Train, and the sense of history evident throughout underscores how much the musicians respect the legacy left by those who came before them, and then build on it. The plight of Okies who migrated from the Dust Bowl in hopes of literally greener pastures in California and found the hard times enduring has hardly been better evoked than in Dallas Frazier’s “California Cottonfields,” made memorable by Merle Haggard on record, but Dirty River stakes its claim on the song with a terrific, driving arrangement supporting an aching but soaring vocal, with a lovely blend of voices harmonizing on the chorus. The band prays and pays homage to Bill Monroe with a moving, midtempo rendition of “The Old Crossroads,” a gospel appeal for divine guidance and salvation done as a duet and featuring Sands’s tasty, understated banjo solo about midway through. Mr. Bill is at least evoked (as well as a host of bluegrass and country giants), too, in Sands’s “Fiona and Me,” a brooding, atmospheric murder ballad that is, in fact, the writer’s imagined missing chapter of “Knoxville Girl,” explaining the circumstances—dreams dashed in a blur of gambling losses, excessive alcohol and abject shame—leading the protagonist to bludgeon to death his one true love, told in flashback as the murderer awaits—even anticipates, because he feels he deserves it—his moment on the gallows. You might say there’s even a sense of history evident at least in the title of the song following “Fiona and Me,” "Cool Water," which is not the Bob Nolan evergreen, but a buoyant love song by Park, celebrating the good woman whose serenity is the soothing balm for this excitable boy.

Dirty River performs Merle Travis’s ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ at Hard Bargain Farm, 2009

The album gathers great steam towards the end, starting with the abovementioned celebration that is “Cherokee Shuffle,” and continuing through the final four tunes. Someone in Dirty River has done his homework and figured out that once a folkie, always a folkie, and applied this wisdom to “Mr. Spaceman.” Yes, “Mr. Spaceman,” the Byrds song written by Roger McGuinn, who has in recent years returned to the folk realm from whence he came, but infused many a Byrds tune with ideas he picked up from his days backing Bob Gibson and others. That the jingle-jangle in his 12-string Rickenbacker sounds like a rolling banjo lick is hardly news to the bluegrass world, where this song is finding a new home in various interpretations. So far, Dirty River’s genial take on it is most true to the original but at the same time the most interesting in terms of approach: slowing it down—and adding a wobbly, McGuinn-like lead vocal from Park, keening harmonies, plus a Sands banjo solo that references two other familiar songs—enhances the song’s weirdness in a way unrivaled even by the original classic, which was McGuinn’s first public pronouncement of his burgeoning interest in space travel and extra-terrestrial life. Incredibly, the fellows follow this by tearing through another bluegrass treatment of a song you would never expect to show up in this repertoire, that being Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Giving credit where credit is due, the quintet actually manages to find something deeper and previously unexplored in terms of flesh, blood and bone feeling in this, one of the lesser moments of a lesser decade (the ‘80s) of pop.

Back to that rippling waters metaphor, though. After “Addicted to Love” comes “Dog Tired,” an evocative, appropriately reflective and subdued instrumental by Barton, who makes of his dobro as expressive an instrumental voice as Leo Kottke does his 12-string, with flurries of cascading notes and ruminative, crying passages as Sands backs him with spare, quiet banjo plunks. Having come through the rapids of “Mr. Spaceman” and “Addicted to Love,” the listener is carried into softly burbling, calm water by “Dog Tired,” and comes to a rest on the solid home ground of the aforementioned “Backroads,” where we all belong. For all the dark suggestion of its album title, Dirty River’s music—its original songs and its choice of covers—speaks, ultimately, to a life affirming sensibility. When you get off the train, you step into the light. Darn, it feels good.

Buy it at www.cdbaby.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024