For new album Toil, Tears & Trouble, bluegrass traditionalists The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys pinpointed obvious and obscure cover songs, most of which pay homage to the Ozark Mountains’ history of talented songwriters and gifted pickers.
Despite their reliance on older material, Jereme Brown (vocals, banjo), C.J. Lewandowski (vocals, mandolin), Jasper Lorentzen (bass), Josh “Jug” Rinkel (vocals, guitar), and Laura Orshaw (fiddle) sound less like a tribute act and more like a creative force in bluegrass’ changing landscape on their Rounder debut.
Frenetic opener “Next Train South” is getting its due already, considering its nomination for 2019 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Song of the Year. Yet it’s not the album’s only textbook example of the band’s past-honoring yet forward-leaning creed. Follow-up single “Hickory, Walnut & Pine” packs a potent instrumental punch for those discovering the group’s string-bending prowess. Lyrically, it bemoans redevelopment in the name of progress: “They’ll cut down the trees and name your new streets Hickory, Walnut & Pine.” Such age-old sentiments cut to the bone in 2019, whether you’re angry about the possibility of Atlanta losing a major country music landmark or frustrated with less publicized change in rural America.
“Next Train South,” penned by Mac Patterson, isn’t the only regional favorite of Ozark music fanatic Lewandowski. Other nods to Missouri’s bluegrass legacy include covers of Cedar Hill’s “Ice on the Timber” and Jim Orchard’s “Longing for The Ozarks.” Each song fits the band’s throwback repertoire like a coal miner’s glove.
Other cover material from roots music’s back pages includes a white-hot rendition of Connie & Joe and The Backwoods Boys’ “Toil, Tears & Trouble,” a tearful take on the Roy Acuff-penned Stanley Brothers cut “Searching For a Soldier’s Grave,” a grassed-up interpretation of folk duo The Gordons’ “Widow Mae,” and a cathartic take on Barry and Holly Tashian’s “Don’t Kneel at My Graveside.”
Beyond honoring bluegrass and folk, the band briefly turns its attention to country music standards. George Jones’ honky-tonk classic “Cold Hard Truth” suits the band’s harmonies thanks in part to fiddle accompaniment that’s as sad and longing as Jones’ vocal delivery. Later in the album, Tanya Tucker standard “Bidding America Goodbye” gets retold in the high, lonesome voice of The Stanley Brothers. Both songs bring mainstream familiarity to an album inspired by Ozark Mountain deep cuts.
Other selections demonstrate the band’s originality as lyricists. A version of Pine Hill Ramblers’ 1969 recording of “Ice Covered Birches” features a brand-new third verse, added with the blessing of songwriter Carl Hoffman. There’s also a Po’ Ramblin’ Boys original in live favorite “Old New Borrowed and Blue,” a song written after Rinkel attended an ex’s wedding.
In all, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys strike the right balance between musical history lessons and forging a career that makes current bluegrass even better as it enters a new decade.