Scaring Up Some Folk

Bridging the Gap (Copper Creek)
The Cumberlands

By Paul Moffett

In the pre-British Invasion days, The Cumberlands were part of what was later laughingly described as the "folk scare," that period when the first phase of rock `n' roll had peaked and faded from radio, pop music was all string sections and really sappy lyrics, bluegrass music was the once and future and country was for still for `hicks.' The hipsters and intellectuals were listening to jazz and the baby boomers had not quite come of age to begin dominating the music market. Working musicians discovered that the old folk-style "story" songs suddenly "worked," and groups like the Kingston Trio, the Weavers and the Limeliters were getting hit records played on the radio.

Harold and Betty Thom, plus Jim Smoak and a variety of other players formed the steadily working Cumberlands, who were based in Louisville but worked throughout the Midwest. Following a long layoff, they have released this collection of twenty-one songs on Copper Creek records, with instrumental help from former New Grass Revival guitarist Curtis Burch and Ricky Burch on bass.

The selections range from folk chestnuts like "Shady Grove," "Cumberland Gap" and "Wayfaring Stranger" to tunes penned by recognized writers, including the Dillards' "There Is a Time" and the old Scott Wiseman tune, "Brown Mountain Light" plus a number by Smoak and Thom.

Jim Smoak's tunes are generally the best of the original material, delivered in a voice that as often as not sounds like a faded cotton dress might if it could sing. Harold Thom stills growls quite strongly and delivers the darker songs admirably. Betty Thom scarcely is heard on this project, usually as backup on some of the spoken/sung sections. On the last few times I've heard them perform, Betty seemed having some problems with her voice, which may have continued.

`Quiet' seems to have been the producer's guiding concept here, as opposed to the screaming electronics of rock and the high-speed, high-volume picking of current bluegrass. The vocals are laid-back, as befits the age of performers: no need to scream to get the message across.

The arrangements befit the material, in that they are sparse and entirely consistent with what you might hear in a good jam session among bluegrass musicians but without a lot of flashy technique, where bluegrass parts company with folk music. In listening to this CD, it's easy to imagine yourself sitting in a small club circa 1962, listening to a real good folk group working through tales of sin and death, murder and lust and loss and redemption. Sometimes you sang along, other times you just listened and the same is true with this project. Not at all scary, in short, rather quite listenable.