a fine Kentucky rock band

Mesas and Mandolins (Waldoxy)
Stealin' Horses

By Allen Howie

Don't let the mandolins and fiddles fool you -- Stealin' Horses is a rock 'n' roll band, and Mesas and Mandolins, even with its sweet harmonies and superb musicianship, is a rock 'n' roll album. The band thunders across much of the same territory as the Hooters, leavening their guitar-bass-drums assault with an acoustic wistfulness that brings a richness to the album without dimming its focus.

With one exception, all of the songs were written or co-written by lead singer Kiya Heartwood, and while she may not be a full-blown cynic, neither is she a wide-eyed innocent. Her lyrics reveal a woman who sees the world not through rose-colored glasses, but through a dusty windshield in the dead of night. Yet she forges ahead, and it is her optimism that keeps the ten tunes here from becoming maudlin.

Heartwood's songs cover all the bases. "If You Want to Be Lovers," "About You" and "It's Not Magic" offer a realist's view of romance, one that values commitment and friendship over candlelight and flowers.

The band flies its rebel-without-a-cause colors on the blustering "Beginner's Mind," and in the feverish "Cross J Fourth of July." A cause leaps all too clearly into focus, though, in "1968 (A Good Year for Robbin' Trains)," painfully exposing the scars left by a brother's death in Vietnam, and the lingering frustration of having so much anger and nowhere to direct it.

Heartwood's voice has a limited range, but what her smokey twang lacks in technical acuity, it makes up for in power and purpose. She attacks these songs as if her life depended on it.

And it may, as she acknowledges in songs like "This House," "Distillery Hill" and "Broadform Deed," black-and-white snapshots of small town life, unvarnished and unframed by misplaced romantic notions. Whether she's singing about the plight of Kentucky coal miners or the discarded promises of youth, Heartwood and the rest of this band bring their point home with the insight and empathy one can only get from being there. Four members of the band are from Kentucky, with founding members Kopana Terry and Heartwood hailing from Lexington.

Stealin' Horses is a band; therein lies the success of these songs. The relentless kick of Steve Kirkpatrick's bass and Terry's drums offers a sturdy foundation for Kevin Clark's electrifying lead guitar and Tim Gilliam's nimble wizardry on fiddle, mandolin and lap steel. And the harmonies provided by all four sweeten Heartwood's vocal ferocity without dulling its edge.

The album closes with a cover of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," played as if it were an old Stones tune, that famous moon transformed into an accusing spotlight. The spotlight's glare is something Stealin' Horses better get used to, judging by this new direction.