Roscommon County Line – Mules and Men

“Acid-Celtgrass” is a sub-genre that I wasn’t familiar with, but it very appropriately sums up the 4 piece Dublin-based band, Mules and Men. After forming back in 2018,  members Luke Coffey (banjo), Lily Sheehan (guitar), Paddy Cummins (mandolin), and Niall Hughes (bass) fell into the rhythm of recording and booking shows in their native city of Dublin. Since their formation they have radiated their original songs and tunes beyond the Dublin’s Liffey river, while still paying homage to their foundations in Irish music.

Although the band has only been together a few years, they have had an extensive touring schedule, which has taken them throughout Ireland and mainland Europe, particularly accumulating a focused fan base in Brittany, France. Their style melds familiar sounds of traditional bluegrass with the unusually matched sounds of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). The result of combining two styles like this has been seen to spark the interest of many younger crowds, who have become interested in the driving sounds, and intricacies of rolling banjo and driving bass. Bands such as the Infamous Stringdusters and festivals such as Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, based in Tennessee, have paved the way for the introduction of this “merging style”of music to new audiences. This refreshing sound, when entwined with their keen songwriting abilities, showcases their story-like songs that highlight the less celebrated parts of Ireland’s rural landscape and lifestyle.

The band name, Mules and Men, is taken from the 1935 auto ethnographic collection of African-American folklore collected and written by Zora Neale Hurston. Her book and writings embrace her own re-immersion in the folklore of her childhood, documenting the oral histories which date back to the time of slavery. The band has seemingly lifted inspiration from her deep-rooted connection to history and documentation, and have chosen to do the same in their native home of Ireland. Each band member draws influence from a wide range of genres, including rock, jazz, classical fingerstyle-guitar, Irish traditional music and, of course, bluegrass. They released their debut album, Thinking Sideways, back in November 2018, along with their March 2020 release, The John Keaveney Singles, and now they have released their most recent album, Roscommon County Line, which features all original tracks with the exception of Disco, which includes Noppit Hill Breakdown, recorded by mandolinist Ronnie McCoury. 

The title track kicks off the album with chants of unison vocals backed by steady bluesy banjo rolls. The tempo and the rhythm section then picks up and moves us into a full-time feel that resembles the well-loved bluegrass track, Freeborn Man, filled with blues runs and solid backing. The track modulates several times throughout to showcase the instrumental abilities of mandolin, guitar, and banjo while fading out to unison vocals again on the line Roscommon County.

Chilly Hollow swings us right back into showcasing the instrumental abilities of each player. This short progressive sounding instrumental sees a lot of swapping between the banjo and mandolin particularly. Rust draws echoes of a Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn track, with banjo leading this slow moving ballad, matched with the dulcet tones of Lily’s lead vocals. It picks up and moves into a steady bluegrass rhythm and tells us the story of a beloved vehicle that is bid a sad goodbye due to heavy rusting. This is a track for any touring bands that have seen out the days of their beloved tour mobile, and have realized that it is time to move on. Mules and Men do a great job of encompassing those emotions on this song. Cork is a straight ahead caffeine accelerated number that features speedy licks swapped between banjo and mandolin. The funky chord changes and alternate melodic phrasing reminds me of early New Grass Revival sounds. 

Track five marks the midway point on the album with Business. Led by Lily on guitar and vocals, she adds her sweet bluesy voice and Molly Tuttle-esque style of performance to this original song. It starts with guitar and vocals, and makes way for a moody guitar solo in the middle, whilst backed up on the verses by ambient background vocals and steady bass playing from Niall. Next comes a sweet original tune called Caisie’s Light, led by Lily and backed up delicately by the band. Upon first listen, it reminded me of a well loved John Reischman composition. It’s the kind of good tune that you’ll end up humming for the rest of the day as soon as you hear it.

With catchy riffs and unexpected twists, Disco takes us by surprise. It’s not often that I get the chance to pair bluegrass and disco music in a review, but this track does exactly that. This one kicks off with mandolin backbeat, rolling banjo, electric guitar fuzz pedals, and steady bass. All feature heavily on this track, until it picks up in tempo and we’re thrown into a full throttle bluegrass tune led by fiery banjo and equally fiery mandolin. The fast flowing chord changes, along with the speedy tempo, makes this track an exciting and exhilarating ride full of unexpected twists. 

Castlerea Prison tells the story of an inmate breaking out of prison, but later returning to the jail to break out his friend so that they can continue living a life on the run. The setting for this song is indeed in Castlerea, which is the second largest town in the Irish County of Roscommon. This track starts off with ambient banjo and guitar voicings, flowing into Lily’s storytelling vocals, and, soon backed by the refrain of  rebellious harmonies that echo the inmates determination to escape and break the law. The defiant and lively action of this story inspire the mandolin solo and lively bass lines. 

The penultimate track, John Keavney, was pre-released as a single back in March 2020, and has been described by the band to hold a cautionary tale. John Keavney, a carpenter from Strokestown (in County Roscommon) becomes victim to an economic recession. He funds his wayward lifestyle by selling land that was in his family for generations, and ends with him paying the price and losing everything he holds dear. They perform it as a straight ahead bluegrass song, filled with raging solos, and progressive chord changes on the chorus. The music video for this track is one of a kind, and I suggest you watch it to see the band’s lively and modern style of video production. Although this song holds a sad tale, this video will bring a smile to your face!

The album ends on a floating high, with the original Continental Mexicali Drift bringing Roscommon County Line to a close. This track really encapsulates  how the band defines themselves and clearly combines the textures of EDM with those of traditional bluegrass to make for an exciting and lively listen. The track begins with voicings of David Grisman inspired melodies, continues confidently with catchy vocal lines, and marks the end with tumultuous sounds of powerfully executed sound effects. 

Mules and Men have done a wonderful job of creating their stamp to show who they are, where they’re from, and what they want to give their listeners. Their skills of combining original songs with inspirations from their Irish heritage and lifestyle, work hand in hand with their chosen instrumentation, and deliver a good time to every live audience that hears them. With this album,  they have done a wonderful job of paying homage to their County Roscommon, by shining a light on the lesser known and interesting tales that are buried deep within it. They don’t shy away from the grit and defiant nature of the lifestyle and landscape of which they love. I think this attitude can be appreciated by listeners from all over the globe, clearly resonating with music lovers from many backgrounds, cultures and landscapes. 

You can order Roscommon County Line online, as well as finding out more about Mules and Men’s other work.