march 2011


Voila! The Big Time Beckons

By David McGee

Rural Rhythm

Hailing from east Kentucky, Josh Slone & CoalTown come by traditional bluegrass naturally, which accounts in part for the group’s Rural Rhythm debut sounding so seasoned, so assured, and so deeply invested in the genre’s enduring themes. (A few years back the band self-released its first album proper, Appalachian Blues.) Cue this up for a stranger to the music, and he/she will get the idea.

The basic band is Slone on guitar and lead vocals; Billy Berger, mandolin; Ollie Risner, banjo; and Gary Wiley on bass. A number of guests lend a hand: fiddler Ron Stewart, resonator guitarists Matt Despain and Kim Gardner; and, in one of his last sessions before his death from cancer this past April, fiddler Gerald Evans’ emotional playing--be it the solemn cries he adds to “One Step Ahead,” a heart tugging ballad about a man struggling to beat his personal demons, or his star turn energizing the witty album closing account of a certain gal’s alluring charms in “Long Legged Woman”--makes its presence felt whenever it shows up in what becomes a stirring tribute to a bluegrass standout.

Album trailer for Josh Slone & CoalTown

Bluegrass has more gifted instrumentalists per capita than any other genre, but those players don’t always have songs as potent as those supplied to Slone and CoalTown by the likes of Michael Wells (whose eight stellar tunes are a big part of this album’s success story), Brandon Rickman, Mike Evans, Larry Cordle and Jenee Fleenor, Mark Brinkman and Paula Breedlove.

Josh Slone: Making the most of the drama at hand

Thus are all the pieces in place for Slone to do what he appears capable of doing as well as anyone working today--bringing the lyrics alive with dramatic, highly personal interpretive singing. Blessed with a hearty baritone voice, Slone doesn’t simply lean on its power to reach his listeners. He brings his songs’ subjects to life with an impressive sense of nuanced phrasing to give each number a strong point of view. His embodiment of a man whose cheating ways have left him bereft of love and isolated in his sorrow, contemplating the new man in his woman’s life who is faithful and true and so enjoys the comforts that once were his, adds the necessary double-edged cut to Wells’s country heartbreaker “Where I Used to Lie,” thanks to the way he softens his attack on certain key words--“cry,” most notably--and soars plaintively in the choruses to suggest the turmoil at the center of his soul. (Gerald Evans has another star turn here with his aching fiddle lines.) Infidelity figures into the album’s kickoff song, “Virginia Bound,” another Wells gem. Sturdy, steady and driving, this tune chronicles the story of a fellow who gets caught in flagrante delicto with a coal miner’s wife when the miner returns home early; a fight ensues, the miner is shot dead, and the narrative then turns to the protagonist’s flight from the law. As the storyline tenses up, so does Slone’s vocal, turning darker and more desperate as he feels events closing in on him; in this pursuit his desperation is echoed on multiple fronts by the dry, subdued laments pouring forth from Matt Despain’s dobro, Ollie Risner’s banjo and Ron Stewart’s fiddle--a textbook example of what this band can do when operating at peak efficiency.

The prisoner who regrets paying little heed to his mother’s wisdom in the somber mountain beauty of Wells’s “Mama’s Midnight Alter Calls”; the fellow who finds a metaphor for his enduring heartbreak in the weather patterns described in Cordle-Fleenor’s despairing, midtempo cry, “Big Blue Raindrops”; the class conflict that leads to a spurned suitor to murder and, in an unexpected plot twist, the wrong man being executed in Brinkman’s harrowing ballad, “For the Love of Ellen Moore,” with the ominous atmosphere enhanced by Kim Gardner’s stark, foreboding dobro: At every opportunity throughout the album, Slone makes the most of the drama at hand, a challenge his fellow musicians respond to with alacrity. The end result is a big-time move into the bluegrass bigtime.

Josh Slone & CoalTown is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
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