A Distant Horizon, the new album from southwest Virginia’s Jeff Brown & Still Lonesome, proves at least one thing: the band takes its name to heart. Many of the songs here contemplate loss – of chances, of a home, and of life, to name a few. Shot through with dark, angry banjo and guided by Brown’s unique voice, a world-weary mixture of Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks, A Distant Horizon is full of the stuff traditional bluegrass is made of.
One of several highlights is opening track A Better Game, a banjo-heavy number about a man who’s tired of his lot in life. It’s a strong, well-written “leaving song” from the pens of Scott Patrick and Jeff McClellan – feeling trapped in eastern Kentucky, the singer heads south to “rest a while and bet on something new.” Back Home to Tennessee is the exact opposite, in story as well as in sound. It’s wistful and melodic, allowing Brown to drift through memories of a youth spent in Tennessee and a wish to return to the place he holds so dear. Brown co-wrote this song with Gary Ferguson, whose previous songwriting credits include Sparks’ hit Last Day at Gettysburg.
What a Man Has to Do is another collaboration between Brown and Ferguson, with the addition of Chuck Murphy. Though technically a coal mining song, it’s truly an ode to blue collar workers in any profession, lamenting a world where “it’s all take and no givin’.” Nick Goad opens the track with some great traditional mandolin. Soul of a Mountain Man shares a similar tale of a life built on hard work, though it’s Mitch Walker’s gritty banjo that sets this song’s tone. Written by Brown and Cumberland Gap Connection’s Mike Bentley, the song is likely to strike a chord with listeners in Brown’s home region. The mountain theme continues with Appalachia is My Name, which contains one of my favorite lines on the album – referring to outsiders who come into the region and often misinterpret the culture, Brown sings “they’re gonna tell the world all about me, but they can’t even pronounce my name.”
Shadow in the Pines is an eerie railroad ghost story, sung by Brown with an appropriate amount of mystery in his voice. On the more cheerful side of things is Back When the Bluegrass Was Green, a peppy nod to the foundations of the genre from Wayne Taylor, Tim Stafford, and Kim Williams. Taylor guests on lead vocals, harmonizing nicely in a duet with Brown, and Adam Haynes contributes twin fiddles that the Father of Bluegrass would have surely appreciated.
Gospel number When the Water’s Too High, featuring nice lead guitar work from Brown’s son Austin (who also holds down the bass position in the band), is one of the album’s standout tracks. Brown takes on a reassuring, calming tone as he reminds listeners that even in the moments when they’re completely overwhelmed, the Lord is close by. Also worth repeated listens is the cover of Waylon Jennings’ You Ask Me To, which translates from honky tonk to modern traditional bluegrass really well. Crisp banjo from former band member Eli Gilbert mixes well with Kyle Murphy’s fiddling, while resonator guitar from guest Gaven Largent adds an extra kick.
Jeff Brown & Still Lonesome have traditional bluegrass down pat, and they’ve chosen a number of well-written songs in the classic bluegrass vein to include here. This group knows exactly what kind of sound they want to get from the music they create, and they do a fine job with their chosen style.
For more information on Jeff Brown & Still Lonesome, visit their website at www.jeffbrownandstilllonesome.com. Their new album is available now from Union House Records.