Bluegrass Current Flows in Cumberland River

Harlan, Kentucky is likely mentioned in more bluegrass songs than any other place in the world. Any band comprised of residents of Harlan County had better have their bluegrass act together.

The boys in Cumberland River exude bluegrass from the time they take the stage until the final note sounds. This is a group that comes by its heritage honestly, with two members dirtying their hands mining the coal before merely singing about it.

The Cumberland River showcase Wednesday night at World of Bluegrass 2011 was a performance as close to impeccable as it gets. Every song performed was written by the band, and the hard-working heritage came through loud and clear. James Dean (banjo), Dustin Middleton (mandolin) and Andy Buckner (guitar) alternated lead singing duties, each ably backed up by the others in harmony as tight as you’ll find. Dean wielded his banjo like a weapon threatening the microphone, blasting a hard driving rhythm that left no doubt of his intentions. Middleton made ‘em proud with the mandolin, singing with a baritone that seemed part Adam Steffey and part Aaron Tippin. Buckner’s Big John was masterful, and he’s no slouch with the guitar, either.

Joe Jones held it together with solid timing, staying slightly ahead of the beat on the songs that needed driving, while tastefully backing off for the more tender passages. The only disappointment for this listener was regarding Jamie Stewart’s resonator guitar. His playing was tasteful and polished, and I couldn’t help thinking he could take on a larger role. Without a weakness in the band, however, it may be hard to find enough parts for each member to shine.

The group achieved early success by its association with the FX Channel’s Justified series. Booked to perform at a cast party for a shooting in Harlan, the group did much more, penning a tune that was used in the show’s soundtrack. Later, the boys showcased their talent to a national audience on an appearance in an episode.

Their most recent release is Rural Rhythm release, The Life We Live. The album debuted to excellent reviews and clearly personifies the band. Writing, picking, singing; the band is bluegrass to the core. Fans of good bluegrass will be mining their contributions for a long time to come.

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About the Author

Cliff Abbott

Cliff Abbott shares his love of bluegrass music with a long career in the trucking industry. He is an accomplished songwriter with several published cuts, including one on Larry Sparks’ “Almost Home” album. He plays bass for Blackrock Station and is a regular contributor to “The Trucker” magazine, in addition to owning and managing a driver employment firm. He and wife Thresa enjoy life at their Nectar, Alabama home.