Lowground, the fourth release from Oregon-based band Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising, has been described by the group as “the darker side of acoustic music.” With numerous songs describing the aftermath of bad decisions, set to a blend of old time and bluegrass music, this thirteen-song collection fits that depiction well.
For this all-original album, the band has drawn from old stories and songs in illustrating many of life’s more troublesome experiences. The opening track, Billy in the Lowground, adds lyrics to the traditional fiddle tune (which is performed mainly on the mandolin here), telling the story of a man who has fallen from the “high ground” his parents tried to steer him towards. High Low Jack and the Game also borrows from tradition, basing a gambler’s tale around the old lyrics “Jack of diamonds, jack of diamonds, I know you from old.” This track is one of the album’s most enjoyable tunes and features nice bluesy guitar and harmonica.
As Handsome Does offers a warning to young women that looks aren’t all that’s important. Its bouncy beat is fun but doesn’t quite fit the lyrics. Ways and Means is another tale of relationships gone wrong – this time about a man who has the misfortune to fall for a woman who isn’t quite as sane as she appears.
A few songs offer the band’s take on historic events. Dust Bowl Days is one of the more bluegrass-sounding songs here, and provides a picture of life during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Shaniko is a tribute to the Oregon ghost town of the same name. The song has Western influences and introduces listeners to an interesting story. However, the vocals feel a bit rushed and are almost shouted at times. Crossroad Haunting suffers from the same problem, although its urgent story of a moment of decision may be a contributing factor.
While the album does feature three-finger banjo, courtesy of Tom Tower, the overall feel is closer to old time music than it is bluegrass. This is particularly true on Rattlesnake in the Woodpile, a darkly humorous tune which sounds as if it has been handed down through the generations, and the instrumental Bottom of the Jar. Tower, who also contributes dobro and vocals, is joined by Kathy Boyd (bass and vocals), Tim Crosby (fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and vocals), and Dennis Nelson (guitar, harmonica, and vocals). Crosby also plays the resophonic mandolin on a few songs, creating a unique sound.
For more information on Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising, visit their website at www.phoenixrisingband.org. Lowground is available from their website, as well as various online music retailers.