Given their recent announcement that they’re calling it a day, Wolfpen Branch can claim they’re exiting with a worthy epitaph. What will presumably be pronounced the Louisville, Kentucky band’s final album, Long Hill To Climb is a fine effort from a band whose lifespan is relatively abbreviated. Formed in 2019-2020 by Arthur Hancock IV (guitar) and Chris Shouse (mandolin), they were later joined by Roddy Puckett (bass), Aaron Bibelhauser (banjo), and Kati Penn (fiddle, later replaced by Jeff Guernsey). Although all the members had previous experience in other outfits, Wolfpen Branch took its name from a song Hancock had written, which, in turn, took its title from a road located in the Louisville area.
It’s somewhat ironic then that Long Hill To Climb marks Wolfpen Branch’s first and last album. It’s a riveting, robust effort that reflects the fact that a lot of effort and enthusiasm went into its making. Although the band as a whole generally takes an unassuming stance, the melodies and moods veer from the earnest and effusive take on the title track, Don’t Have a Clue, Burning the Midnight Oil, and Richard Corey, to the more tender touches of Born Again and Sewanee. At the same time, there’s never any hint of posturing or pretense, given the fact that the songs are shared from a decidedly personal perspective.
That allows the music not only to come across with clarity and precision, but also to enhance its accessibility as well. Alone and Insincere is, as its title suggests, both perky and precocious. Roger’s Song takes a celebratory stance, likely owed to the admiration and homage given the individual name-checked in the title. So while there’s no doubting the band’s acumen and ability, their’s is an engaging honesty that speaks directly to the listener and adds to the overall appeal. These are songs that are easily relatable, simply because they are stories spawned from a common core.
Given the relatable references, it seems a shame that Wolfpen Branch pulled the plug on their music so soon. Long Hill To Climb, any inferences aside, indicates they had the potential to scale whatever peaks might impede their progress. One can only hope that they reconsider and build on the skills shown here.