January 20, 2019
Eric Brace, Peter Cooper & Thomm Jutz – Riverland
The gifts of the Mississippi are the historical and geographical attributes that surround it. These include inequality, cotton, deprivation, heat, a lazy pace, roots music and a mighty ribbon of water that broadens as it descends the USA to become little short of a country within a country.
Here we have three gifted musicians who’ve taken their wonderment to produce a remarkable album. They write stories about war, floods, workers, segregation, bootleggers and the simple towering majesty of the river. The range of the themes and people who ‘speak’ these stories are beautifully crafted and diverse in their perspectives. Add some acoustic folk/roots music delivered with harmony, humour and memorable melodies and we may have an album that stands out from the current crop of releases.
Eric Brace, Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz collaborate on yet another album and pen 13 out of the 14 songs. All three are accomplished musicians with a considerable catalogue of music between them. Brace and Cooper, two former journalists, have worked together for many years and been Grammy nominated. Jutz has had a career that includes playing in the bands of Nanci Griffith and Mary Gauthier.
“River City” tells us about the boats that work the channel and its men who tumble off at various ports for an evening’s entertainment before returning to carry on their journey. The song carries a heavy heart at the life of being continually in transit with all the leaving that this entails. The three voices, whether as a lead or in the chorus, work so well together often harmonising to give a depth and emotion to the lyrics.
The working river saw changes as sail gave way to steam. Inevitably some trades fell into disuse. “King of the Keelboat Men” has that Springsteen bitter undercurrent of proud and strong men being made obsolete; their talents discarded. “Drowned & Washed Away” revisits the vicissitudes and upheaval of the devastating 1927 flood. “Down Along The River” is a song about the role the river played in the 1860s’ Civil War.
Recent history is about segregation. “Mississippi Magic” touches on a landmark that was key in the nascent civil rights movement. With a heartfelt conversational narrated start we see the unfolding conflagration of 1962 with conflict between white and black over an African American’s entrance to the the University of Mississippi. Never preachy and told from the perspective of a surprised onlooker this captures the era.
Acoustic albums are often beautifully played (as the absence of electricity seems to provide nowhere to hide). Whether it’s Jutz’s flatpicking or the plucking of a banjo we have accompaniment that compliments but never intrudes and creates space for those voices to enthral. Welcome to 2019, we’re setting the bar high.
This is a tremendous album but the concept appealed to me after my 2015 bike ride down the USA:
I trundled through the Deep South leaving Memphis on Highway 61 and picking up the signs on the Blues Trail and absorbed the culture and geography. Landmarks were numerous from Bessie Smith’s place of death to B B King’s museum in Indianola and a night of being bitten by bed bugs. I only came across cotton once as I cycled into Clarksdale. Apparently it’s too thirsty compared to soya and probably not as lucrative. Other myths are that black folk still play the blues. Sadly not really, it seems a white person’s pursuit nowadays. All the black folk were helpful and kind (Including the inmates from the local penitentiary who wanted a light for their cigarette as they painted the car park at the field where I camped). Time on the Natchez Parkway will always live with me as will Natchez as I camped beside the river on a site with a huge RV looming over my one man tent. The next day I crossed the Mississippi three times before getting into Louisiana. The worst road surfaces in the USA welcomed me along with torrential rain as I approach New Orleans. The rain on a crossing across the Mississippi by ferry was so horrific that the operator invited me to sit inside for another trip until the weather passed! So I ‘did’ this part of the world and feel a little smug that i lived and pedalled miles absorbing all it had to offer and not just writing beautiful songs from a misty yet romantic notion.