On their website. Staunton, Virginia-based band Bourbon Barrel Congress describes their sound as one that “blurs the lines between bluegrass, old-time, folk and country music.” It’s a good description, at least of their debut, self-titled album, which bounces from old-time fiddle tune to mournful Americana to folk-pop and back again. The four-piece group has a good sound, a good grasp of several traditionally-based genres, and the members seem to be solid instrumentalists.
The album opens with a toe-tapping take on the traditional Boatin’ Up Sandy. Guitarist Ethan Hawkins offers a mellow intro, after which the whole band kicks into an energetic version of the tune. It’s old-time for the most part, with a few more progressive instrumental solos throughout. The band offers three more instrumentals here, all original and all with the same contemporary mixture of bluegrass and old-time. Set Tasers to Horse, despite the unique name, is a fairly straightforward fiddle tune, as is Rockingham, while 451 is more mandolin-guided. The addition of harmonica solos, courtesy of guest Michael Emerson, on the three songs, is perhaps a strange choice, lending a grittier, honky-tonk vibe to short sections of the tunes.
Four of the six remaining songs were written by Hawkins. Flattered Am I, which shares the somewhat existential ponderings of a lovelorn narrator, is progressive folk-grass. The harmonica fits better here, meshing well with Rene DeVito’s fiddle. Mr. Wayne is peaceful, with a slowly meandering melody, and Oh the Rain is a nice slice of acoustic, folky pop. These three songs bring to mind popular edge-of-bluegrass groups like Mumford and Sons or The Punch Brothers, and fans of that style should certainly enjoy these tracks. Wife of a Politician’s Son is darker, and seems to be the group’s effort at modernizing the murder ballad. It’s a nice outline of a story, complete with revenge, intrigue, and cheating, but it could definitely be fleshed out more.
The album is rounded out by two cover songs. Nellie Kane is fine – the Hot Rize version with a bit more western twang in the vocals and through the addition of harmonica. The Felice Brothers’ Whiskey in My Whiskey is also a pretty straightforward cover. It definitely has a different sound from the rest of the album, but the band does it justice, with a boozy red dirt country feel.
There’s quite a mix of styles on this album, and Bourbon Barrel Congress puts forth a good show on all of them. The most enjoyable are probably the instrumentals, which are a nice combination of fresh and old-timey. Going forward, this relatively new band (which also includes Chris Davis on bass and John Spangler on banjo) could move in several different directions. Here’s hoping they find success in whichever one they choose.
For more information on Bourbon Barrel Congress, visit their website at www.bourbonbarrelcongress.com. Their debut album is available from several online retailers.