A Trip Back into Time

Dry Branch Fire Squad
Hand Hewn (Rounder Records)

By Bob Mitchell

Back in the 1950s I remember going down an old dirt country road in a pickup truck with another guitarist. At the first house we picked up a banjo player. Further down the road, we stopped for a fiddle player. Still further down the road a mandolin player hopped in the back. And at the end of the road a fellow with a doghouse bass was waiting. We tuned up and played until our fingers were sore. What fun. What a sound: unamplified acoustic instruments! I wish I could go back and take you with me, but time travel is not possible. Theoretically, that is.

However, I can offer you the next best thing: Hand Hewn, a new release by the Dry Branch Fire Squad. For over twenty years, Ron Thomason's group has been a keeper of the flame for true, honest old-time music. And I suspect unless he runs out of weird stories and a love of music, he will be around another thirty years.

This latest project is nothing fancy, just heartfelt vocals and the uncluttered lovely sound of acoustic instruments. Ten tracks are labeled "traditional" and the others are by such songwriting luminaries as Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, Stephen Foster and G. B. Grayson. The only new tune on the recording is "Nazeer, Nazeer," an original instrumental by Thomason that sounds as if it had been written by Bill Monroe.

"I'll Live Again" and "I Can Go To Them" are fabulous gospel cuts. "The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird" has an outstanding solo by Suzanne Thomas. Her vocal talent also gets high marks for her tenor in "Two Coats" (by Ralph Stanley) and "Atlanta Is Burning" (by Audrey Holt).

If you have ever attended a Dry Branch Fire Squad show, you know that Thomason is full of surprises, interesting stories, and off the wall humor. Along those lines is "Papa's Billy Goat," an unusual track featuring Ron on vocal, hambone, feet, and fiddle. After all the fun, the Hand Hewn ends with a happy and rousing rendition of "Lonesome Road Blues."

This is an excellent release, especially if you enjoy the old-time sound.