Hanging Tree - Blue Mafia : Country Standard Time

Blue Mafia

The Hanging Tree – 2016 (Pinecastle)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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Since emerging with one of the strongest debuts of 2013, Blue Mafia have done the work necessary - touring, writing and wood-shedding - to gain a measure of recognition within the crowded bluegrass field. "Hanging Tree," their third album, continues the group's ascension within the marketplace.

Emphasizing the importance of balance, Blue Mafia combine to be dynamic and distinctive. Featuring multiple lead voices, strong original songs as well as the ability to locate good new ones and an agreeable instrumental mix, Blue Mafia is assuredly on the right track.

Dara Wray's songs are a staple of Blue Mafia albums, and this time three are offered. "You Belong With Me" benefits from a nice '70s folk-rock vibe while "The Man You Know" contains the astute observance, "Singing in church Sunday morning don't make you a Christian man, any more than playing bars on Friday means I'm straying from the Master's plan." Hopeful and observant, her "Life" would be right at home on an early Dale Ann Bradley album.

The title track was featured in the penultimate film of "The Hunger Games" series and as effective as Jennifer Lawrence's performance may have been, Blue Mafia takes it to another level; the five-string of Calib Smith and Wray's voice lend haunting, smoky components not present in the galvanizing cinematic version. More familiar to bluegrass audiences will be "With Body and Soul," the Virginia Mae Stauffer song recorded by Bill Monroe in 1969. A signature Monroe number, Blue Mafia remain true to the song's spirit while infusing their own personality.

The classic "Loneliness and Desperation" is provided a rousing take with Tony Wray taking the lead, and a newer song "Midnight Rain" (with turns of phrase worthy of Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson) provides a melancholic vision of life on the road; co-written by Craig Market and Dara's mother Cindy Denman, this is a great song and performance with lead vocals by Kent Todd. Todd, a fierce fiddler, also sings the lead on "Sweet Mary of the Mountain." Smith, who has since departed the group, wrote the strong lead track "Like a Mining Man."

With 12 songs, "Hanging Tree" is a meaty album without filler. Blue Mafia remain underappreciated within the bluegrass industry. The comprehensive quality of this album should start to change that.

Hanging Tree - Blue Mafia: Bluegrass Today

Hanging Tree – Blue Mafia

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to catch the last few songs of a Blue Mafia show at the Down Home in Johnson City, TN. Though I’d heard the band on the radio plenty of times (their 2015 album, Pray for Rain, has been a favorite of many bluegrass DJs since its release), it was the first time I saw them live. Simply put, they blew me away. The sheer energy that they play and sing with is remarkable, and their arrangements are intriguing to both fans and fellow musicians. I have been excited to hear their new album from Pinecastle Records, Hanging Tree, and am glad to report that it’s an extremely strong showing.

Hanging Tree sits firmly in the modern traditional grass style, though the band offers listeners several different sounds to enjoy. The group seems to favor the popular, driving “mashgrass” style, especially on their updated versions of old standards. One of the best is the slow mash rendition of Carter Stanley’s Say Won’t You Be Mine, with its powerful banjo and fiddle-guided groove. Fiddler Kent Todd is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists, and he gives an excellent, soulful performance here. Loneliness and Desperation is straight-ahead and forceful, with a strong lead from guitarist Tony Wray and plenty of bass from Michael Gregory. There’s a hint of frustration in his voice, matching the song’s lyrics well. With Body and Soul is given a modern update, as well, with smooth harmonies and tightly rolling banjo. This is neither Bill Monroe’s version, nor the Seldom Scene’s; it has a vibe all its own.

For several other songs, the group switches to a lighter, more contemporary sound. Midnight Rain, with Todd singing lead, is a mid-tempo musician’s lament. Penned by Craig Market and Cindy Denman, it’s very well-written, comparing the singer’s musical skill with his failure to keep the one he loved: “They’ve got me makin’ records, guess they like the way I turn a phrase. They don’t know how hard I tried in vain to find the words to make you stay.” You Belong with Me, an original from mandolin player Dara Wray, is a melancholy lost love number, while Life, also from Dara’s pen, is an enjoyable glimpse at hometown memories and the power of reminiscence. The instrumentation is light and thoughtful, matching the song’s trip down “the road that we call life.”

Dara sings lead on a number of songs here, but the highlight is perhaps her own The Man You Know, an earnest look at salvation. Thanks to its stripped down instrumental arrangement, the lyrics and her genuine, sincere reading of the song stand out. It also contains one of my favorite lines from the album – “Singing in church Sunday morning don’t make you a Christian man, any more than playing bars on Friday means I’m straying from the Master’s plan.” Many listeners will also enjoy her lead on the title track, which was written for Mockingjay, the third book and film in the popular Hunger Games series. The series’ main character lives in a dystopic version of the Appalachian region, and the song was meant to reflect the area’s historical folk songs and ballads. It’s a haunting number mixing a love story and a hanging, with a spooky, atmospheric opening and a melody spurred on by Calib Smith’s urgent banjo.

With Hanging Tree, Blue Mafia has delivered another winner, featuring several strong contemporary-leaning originals, unique interpretations of older songs, and fine vocalists and musicians. If the band isn’t already on your radar, this album is likely to put them there.

For more information on the group, visit www.bluemafiaband.com. Their new album is available from several music retailers.

Parcbench.live Review

New Bluegrass: Blue Mafia — ‘Hanging Tree’

Blue Mafia — ‘Hanging Tree’

Label: Pinecastle Records

There’s something wonderfully unpredictable about Blue Mafia’s new album, Hanging Tree. Sure, it has dynamic guitar-playing and picking, strong (yet sensitive) vocals, soothing harmonies. But it doesn’t sound like every other bluegrass album out there. The songs themselves create an atmosphere so inviting that you wish they released a double-CD. It conveys a distinct voice and offers some of the most accessible material I’ve heard in years. This is what raw music, at its most inspired, can sometimes—if you’re lucky—sound like. You can hear the love that lifts every note.

Blue Mafia is: Dara Wray (mando, vocals and songwriting), Tony Wray (guitar, vocals), Mike Gregory (bass), Kent Todd (fiddle, vocals), and Curtis Bumgarner (banjo).

I hope that the Indiana-based band pays a visit to NYC someday. It’d be refreshing to hear their brand of straight-from-the-heart bluegrass in person. Then again, it’s just as refreshing to take a road trip to Kentucky or Tennessee—especially when the pursuit of such vibrant music is the reason. They may be bluegrass, but there’s a whole lot more going on here, and it only serves to enliven the genre.

Essential Downloads: “The Man You Know,” “Midnight Rain, “Who Are You.”

AustralianBluegrass.com Review

Blue Mafia – Hanging Tree

hangingtreePinecastle Records has released Hanging Tree, the latest project from Blue Mafia, the spirited group that has been called “unabashedly bluegrass.”

Hanging Tree is the band’s second release on the North Carolina record label. Pray For Rain was released to wide acclaim in 2015. Blue Mafia’s independently released debut album, My Cold Heart, was released in 2013 and quickly shone a light on the Indiana band, leading to their signing to Pinecastle.

Blue Mafia was founded in 2011, the brainchild of husband and wife team, Dara Wray (mandolin, vocals and songwriting) and Tony Wray (guitar and vocals). The skilled ensemble is rounded out by Mike Gregory on bass, Kent Todd on fiddle and vocals, with the recent addition of Curtis Bumgarner on banjo.

A preview single, “Like A Mining Man,” has already been released to bluegrass radio.

bluemafiaBlue Mafia is characterised by Tony’s dynamic guitar playing; three strong vocalists in Dara, Tony and Kent; plus skilful harmonies with consistently tight picking. Dara has proven to be an exciting new songwriting voice in the genre and she contributes three originals to this new album: “The Man You Know,” “You Belong To Me,” and “Life.” Ironically, Dara is reluctant to label herself as a “songwriter,” yet she has demonstrated a brilliant gift for crafting illustrative lyrics and melodies with a familiar feel.

Additional songs were culled from various sources, like “With Body And Soul,” which Dara’s father and uncles used to perform. Blue Mafia gives it their touch in homage to those elders. The group chooses songs that truly move them personally, like “Who You Are,” which was written by Kevin Hayes, a fan and friend of the band. The title cut caught the attention of Tony and Dara as they watched the popular movie, ‘The Hunger Games,’ for which the tune was originally composed.

Hanging Tree is available to radio through the AirPlay Direct digital download service. Fans may pre-order immediately and preview the tracks through the website here.

Track List:

Like A Mining Man
Hanging Tree
Sweet Mary Of The Mountains
The Man You Know
With Body And Soul
Baby You’re Gone
Midnight Rain
Loneliness And Desperation
 Say Won’t You Be Mine
You Belong With Me
Who You Are

Pray For Rain - Blue Mafia : Bluegrass Today

Pray For Rain – Blue Mafia
 | February 27, 2015 2 Comments

Pray For Rain - Blue MafiaBlue Mafia really caught my attention with their 2013 debut CD, My Cold Heart. It boasted of three strong lead singers, and a powerful new songwriting voice, plus the sort of dynamic guitar playing that sets the tracks on fire.

Over the past two years, the band has pulled together material for a robust new album, and signed with Pinecastle Records for the release of Pray For Rain. Just recently they have aligned with Jason R. Grubb Artist Management for booking and management services. It looks like they have covered a lot of ground in a short space of time and are poised to make a move in bluegrass.

Blue Mafia specializes in the sort of aggressive “1-4-5 drive” that is widely popular these days, fueled by Tony Wray’s overhanded rhythm guitar sound. And regardless whether the lead vocals are coming from Tony, his wife and primary songwriter Dara Wray, or fiddler Kent Todd, the harmony parts are like a fourth voice of its own, moving and sliding through the chords at all times. It helps to give a characteristic sound to a group with several lead voices.

The picking is universally sound as well. Cody Looper’s banjo is as muscular and active as Wray’s guitar, and Todd is a fine fiddle man in addition to being a superb vocalist. The ensemble sound is consistently tight, supported by Michael Gregory on bass and Dara Wray on mandolin.

Nearly half of the songs were written by Dara, who can spin a prison story or a drop dead breakup song as well as any of the guys, as evidenced by One Bad Day and Consider It Goodbye. The title track is also hers, sung by Kent, which conveys the despair of someone watching his home burn while awaiting the arrival of the fire department, and not for the first time.

Also notable are the arrangements these folks apply to some hoary bluegrass standards. Moonshinerand East Virginia Blues get a lonesome, bluesy treatment that both serves the songs well, and gives a new feel to old classics. A couple of others, I’m Lonesome Without You, and All I Ever Loved Was You – both from the Ralph Stanley canon – get a sincere reading, as does the J.D. Crowe classic, Born To Be With You, and Goble and Drumm’s I’d Like To Be A Train.

The highlight track is easily He’s In Control, a contemporary Christian number which showcases Todd’s expressive and agile voice. This one is a showstopper on Blue Mafia live shows and they have captured that same energy here on the recording. Again, the harmony chorus is a lovely thing to behold.

The sole instrumental is a banjo tune from Looper, Backtrail, performed with just a guitar accompaniment. It’s written in a fiddle tune style, making interesting use of Scruggs tuners. The duet format works as a nice contrast amidst the hard-hitting band tracks.

Of the three singers, Kent seems the most radio friendly, and the band might do well to steer a bit more of the lead vocals his way. Tony and Dara do fine, but sometimes lack the range they need to deliver the low notes with gusto and authority.

But that’s a minor quibble. Pray For Rain is a terrific record, and will appeal to anyone who enjoys unabashedly bluegrass music. Nothing crosses over here. It’s all in your face grass – and it works!


Rambles.NET Review

Written by Jerome Clark on February 7, 2015

As one who's loved bluegrass all of his adult life, I never cease to marvel at the genre's endurance. It's not that nobody has ever gotten rich playing bluegrass -- Bill Monroe certainly did -- it's that few have managed to do so while not letting that stop them. If any music lives on the love of those who play it and those who listen to it, it's bluegrass. It helps that speciality independent labels provide bluegrass acts a recording outlet. One of them is Pinecastle, which dependably issues quality CDs by bands old and new, well known and less so.

The culture of bluegrass is divided -- though it overlaps at points -- between performers possessed of authentic connections with Appalachia (or the Appalachian diaspora into the Lower Midwest) and those, mostly Northern and urban, who were drawn to the music through a general interest in folk-based music. Blue Mafia and the Farm Hands, from Muncie, Indiana, and Nashville respectively, are young, rising bands, both traditional by current definition, both linked to Appalachia. Pray for Rain and Better Than I Deserve attest to the ability of good musicians to keep the sound fresh and exciting.

The five-piece Blue Mafia boasts an impressive lineup of singers (fiddler Kent Todd and mandolinist Dara Wray, with radically different yet somehow complementary vocal styles), gifted pickers and consistently solid material. Band members evince a keen awareness of the old mountain music that preceded bluegrass. Though the old-timers "Moonshiner" and "East Virginia Blues" have often been recorded ("Moonshiner" by no less than Bob Dylan in his Village folksinger days), Blue Mafia places them inside innovative arrangements that seem to deepen the songs and uncover new meaning in them.

Don Robertson's "Born to be With You" was once a hit for the Chordettes and, later, for country-pop star Sonny James. Blue Mafia's driving harmonies, combined with the song's appealing melody, happily overwhelm the saccharine lyrics. A particular highlight is Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm's "I'd Like to be a Train," a better song than its title suggests. Dara Wray's compelling "One Bad Day" grows out of a strikingly original idea; I don't recall hearing a comparable story in any song I've heard in any genre.

One Stop Country Review

Blue Mafia - "Born To Be With You"

Bluegrass is always one of our favorite genres to dig in to. It is often where you will find the most innovative and most solid musicians that know how to perfectly walk a line between traditions and fuse in the modern touch. That is the case with Pinecastle Records Blue Mafia as they show on the release of “Born To Be With You,” the lead single from their new album Pray For Rain. The song is familiar as it was a pop hit back in the 1950’s for The Chordettes and in the 1968 for country music’s Sonny James as well, but it is Blue Mafia’s ability to take this previous hit and add their signature flavor to it to make it their own that elevates it and makes it stand out. Using prominent bluegrass instrumentation immediately draws you into the song as the banjo plucks and the fiddle whines. As the lyrics kick in you are met with amazing harmonies that grip you and never let up. You will be singing along with the lyrics that celebrate being blissful in love; “by your side, satisfied through and through, cause I was born to be with you.” Bluegrass has always been a genre about looking back on those that have paved the road before you and that is exactly what Blue Mafia has done with this tune. However, it has also been all about creating a defining sound for yourself that stamps a signature mark as well. Blue Mafia gives us the familiar with this single, but finds all of the ways to differentiate it from the past recordings of it while also presenting a unique flare within the bluegrass genre as they offer a very fresh and modern sound that is built out of honoring the past.

Bluegrass Notes Review

Written by Keith Lawrence on January 26, 2015

BLUE MAFIA, “Pray For Rain,” Pinecastle. 13 tracks

Blue Mafia is a fairly new band, formed in 2011 in Muncie, Indiana, by Tony and Dara Wray.

But its members have spent years in other bands before becoming part of the Mafia.

“Pray For Rain,” their second album, goes on sale Feb. 10.

Dara Wray wrote three of the songs — “One Bad Day,” about a man who is one bad day away from prison; “Consider It Goodbye,” about a man who is leaving and a woman who just doesn’t care anymore; and the title track.

There’s a Tom T. and Dixie Hall song, “I Didn’t See It Coming,” about a woman who didn’t expect to lose the man she loves.

There’s a Peter Rowan song, “Moonshiner.”

And there are a couple of Ralph Stanley songs — “East Virginia Blues” and “I’m Lonesome Without You.”

There are a couple of gospel songs — “Had To Be Crippled” and “He’s In Control.”

There’s an instrumental — “Backtrail” — written by Cody Looper, the band’s banjo player.

And there’s a bluegrass version of an old pop song — “Born to Be With You” — that went to No. 5 on the pop charts for The Chordettes in 1956 and became a No. 1 country hit for Sonny James in 1968.

Good album.

Can’t find it in stores? Try BlueMafiaBand.com.

Pray For Rain coming from Blue Mafia from Bluegrass Today

Written by John Lawless on October 27, 2014

Pray For Rain - Blue Mafia

Pinecastle Records has announced February 10, 2015 as the release date for Pray For Rain, the second CD project from Blue Mafia, and their first for the North Carolina-based label.

The Indiana band is anchored by the picking and singing of Dara and Tony Wray, a husband/wife team loaded with talent. Tony is a very strong bluegrass guitarist, of the sort that can carry a band on his back, and Dara is a fine singer and songwriter who plays mandolin.

They are joined by an equally skillful ensemble. Mike Gregory plays bass, and Cody Looper banjo, with Kent Todd handling fiddle and lead vocals. All had many years of bluegrass experience before joining up with Blue Mafia in 2011.

Dara told us earlier this afternoon that a single is due to be released before the end of the year, but that they haven’t finally decided on which track. There will 13 songs included, one being a banjo tune from Cody, and three from Dara, along with a Tom T. and Dixie Hall number that is special to the Wrays.

“The Tom T. and Dixie song was pretty fun for me. I worked for them a few years back, and Tony and I actually recorded the demo for them while working there. I’ve always loved the song, and was very happy to include it.”

The album will also contain what is sure to be a big song for the band, one Kent sings called He’s In Control. Blue Mafia’s performance of this one was recorded on video from a live set on The Bluegrass Connection radio program late in 2013.

Dara says that after the video got some exposure online, Pinecastle reached out to the band, ultimately leading to them signing with the label. Yeah… it’s that strong.



Nashville folks have to chance them live this Friday when they have a Halloween show at The Station Inn. Costumes are optional. The show starts at 9:00.

Blue Mafia to Pinecastle from Bluegrass Today

Written by John Lawless June 19, 2014

Blue Mafia

When Blue Mafia dropped their debut album, My Cold Heart last year, we were fast fans. Their combination of strong original material, powerful and aggressive vocals, and super solid accompaniment won us over right away.

It seems that Pinecastle Music feels the same way, as they have signed Blue Mafia to the label, with plans for a new CD sometime in 2015. Recording is ongoing this Summer, and a debut single is expected before the year is out.

The title of the new record will be Pray For Rain, a song written by mandolinist Dara Wray. She tells us that it’s one she wrote about her childhood, which will be sung by fiddler Kent Todd.

“We had two house fires growing up, and I have often thought of how my Dad must have felt getting the call about the second one. I wrote this song from his perspective.”

In fact, most of the songs on the next CD will be Dara’s compositions, sung by her and husband Tony (on guitar), or by Todd. One that she didn’t contribute is He’s In Control, originally cut by Austins Bridge, who had written it as well. It was named Bluegrass Recorded Song of the Year in 2008 at the GMA Dove Awards.

Kent will sing this one, and he says it hit him the first time he heard it.

“I heard it on a southern Gospel radio station, and when I heard it my wife and I thought that it would be a good one for the band so we worked it up.  It has been a great song for us, people seem to really enjoy it, and its a ton of fun to sing it with Dara and Tony.”


Other than Tony, Dara, and Kent, Blue Mafia consists of Cody Looper on banjo and Mike Gregory on bass.

Dara also said that the band is delighted to be working with Pinecastle, and can’t wait to get this record finished and out.

“We’re all extremely happy with the direction Blue Mafia is taking, and have worked hard to make sure that we continue to grow as musicians, and as a unit. I think our music gets stronger and tighter the more we play, and it’s exciting to be along for this journey.”

The band has been winning fans across the country in the past 12 months through their live shows, and hope the first Pinecastle release will bring them even greater attention.

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