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.