History is much more interesting on record than in a dusty museum and it seems that recently there’s been a slew of discs which reach back into the past in order to enlighten and entertain us. It’s certainly the case with Riverland, this trio’s collection of songs inspired by Mississippi, the state and the river, described in the liner notes thus, “Mississippi is a broken place. It is America’s Eden, if instead of banishment, God chose to flood the garden and wipe flat every last splinter that Adam and Eve ever erected.” It’s certainly central to much of the history and culture of the States, a state of mind as much as a place of mud, floods and slavery, and Brace, Cooper and Jutz do the legends and stories justice on this fascinating listen.
Avoiding the temptation to delve into delta blues the trio deliver a handsome set which doesn’t avoid civil rights issues but gives space to poverty stricken folk who tried to live off the land and some of the artists who have defined some of the Mississippi spirit in book and in song. Acoustic for the most part with resonator guitar well to the fore, they sing of pre steamboat punt driven keelboats, the devastation wrought by floods and the aftermath of the civil war when Ulysses S Grant besieged Vicksburg, the town capitulating on the 4th July leading to them refusing to celebrate the national holiday thereafter. The disc is chockfull of information like this and a handsome booklet leads the listener through the stories behind the songs.
The album opens with River City, a melancholic diorama describing the trials and temptations of the bright lights. It’s next on to the quick step old timey King Of The Keel Boat Men and then the powerful drama of Win Along The River, the Grant song, delivered with weeping fiddle and aching mandolin. There’s not many upbeat songs here, Southern Mule jaunts along in a mild western swing style while Fort Defiance, a song sitting towards the end of the disc, is simply a description of the delights to be had boat watching at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers although even here there’s a tug of melancholia in the song. They celebrate a renowned civil rights activist and preacher, Rev. Will D. Campbell, on the banjo speckled Old Tom T And Brother Will which is about his friendship with Tom T Hall and Campbell comes alive on the most powerful song on the album, Mississippi Magic, which concerns the enrolment of James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. Elsewhere the Nobel Laureate, William Faulkner is recalled in It Might Be Hollywood and there’s a grand nod to John Hartford (and Mark Twain) on the Hartford inspired To Be A Steamboat Man (Hartford himself qualified as a steamboat pilot). The album closes with an elegy of sorts on Mississippi, Rest My Soul, a song which finds a son of the soil clinging to his stained heritage despite an exodus to the cities by his peers. It ties the album up as, from the excitement at the beginning through the trials and eventual tired present day, this talented trio really do sum up this blighted land.