A Cincinnati based eight piece country rock combo Magnolia Mountain are very much the brainchild of Mark Utley, a big man with a big sound and judging by this a big talent. Singer, guitar and banjo player and writer of all but two of the 18 songs here one senses that Utley is steeped in rock, country and blues with the result that the album is a smorgasbord of delights. Fiddle laced romps sit side by side with slide driven rockers and devilish blues moans, an eclectic mix indeed and it goes some way to explain the dichotomy of the album’s title.
The country side is evident from the start with Black Mollie where a rustic fiddle leads into a Celtic influenced jaunt with banjo and mandolin sprinkled throughout. One Waking Moment continues with this mandolin and fiddle country style but with a smoother approach and some nice Bakersfield type electric guitar flourishes.The Old Ways ripples along with some fine fiddle soloing from Kathy Woods that is spinechilling. This is a thrilling song that sounds as old as the hills and ably demonstrates Utley’s ability to capture in his lyrics age-old worries. He brings this bang up to date however on the tremendous Hand of Man, a great folk song that rails against the despoliation of the country by mining companies who are “greedy for that coal” and the consequences of their greed.
“White Star Holler was my home. Shared the crops that we had grown, Shared the water from our well, Shared the life we loved so well, Coal men brought the mountain down, Leaked their poison underground, Mother, neighbour, friend, and son, Cancer took them, every one.”
Delivered with a fiery passion and with some great harmony singing by Melissa English and Renee Frye the song blazes with a righteous indignation fuelled by the real life protest against mountain top mining in the Appalachians that led Utley to compile a protest album Music For The Mountains. The sweeter All My Numbered Days runs like a clear mountain stream and is reminiscent of John Hartford with its country pop sensibility.
Back in the grittier side of town life Magnolia Mountain prove themselves to be capable of some fine urban grooves and bluesy slinks. Baby Let’s Pretend is like a blue-collar version of The Mavericks while Set On Fire grinds its loins lustily. The Southern soul groove of Rainmaker is rousing and sexy with an infectious dance feel while The Devil We Know is an impressionistic and spooky film noire set to music. Guest vocalist Lydia Loveless adds some fire and brimstone to the fast paced and slide guitar driven duet that is Shotgun Divorce where Utley and Loveless toss insults and threats as if they were trailer park descendants of Lee Hazlwood and Nancy Sinatra.
There’s ’s a temptation to conjure up the word “epic” to describe this but this is partly because it arrived as a beautiful double vinyl album package and compared to the usual CD review copies it just seems, well, big. While I’d recommend the vinyl it is available in digital form. Whatever format you go for it’s a great album.