There’s plenty to like on Starry Southern Nights, the debut album from New England-based group, Rock Hearts. Though the record comes in a little light at only eight tracks, the band packs lots of traditional-sounding bluegrass into those numbers, ranging from well-written originals to covers from both the classic bluegrass and wider folk/Americana world. The album is a great overview of what the band has to offer, and is likely to leave the listener wanting more.
One of the early singles will be familiar to most traditional bluegrass fans, as it’s a cover of the Osborne Brothers’ Don’t Let Smokey Mountain Smoke Get In Your Eyes. Excellent banjo and fiddle from Joe Deetz and Danny Musher, respectively, kick off the song, followed by some fine harmonies and a pleasant lead vocal from guitarist Alex MacLeod. It’s a fine tribute to Bobby and Sonny, who, according to MacLeod, were big influences for all of the band members. Also enjoyable is the hard-driving 99 Year Blues, which works well as an opening track. It’s an old blues number dating back to the 1920s, originally written by Piedmont blues musician, Julius Daniels, and later updated in the 1970s by Hot Tuna. Rock Hearts (and in particular, Rick Brodsky’s bass) gives the song a great pushing rhythm and an enjoyable arrangement with time for all the musicians to show off their chops.
The title track is an original from MacLeod, inspired by an old man he saw dancing alone to a waltz at a local bluegrass show. The song’s a tear-jerker, sharing the story of a man who still shares a dance with his beloved wife, even though she’s only present in his memories. Befitting the somber lyrics, the song has a gentler feel than most of the other tracks, including bowed bass. Townes Van Zandt’s Don’t Take It Too Bad also has a lighter sound, with a bouncy, laidback melody and some fun mandolin from Billy Thibodeau.
Back on the traditional side of things is Whispering Waters, previously recorded by names like James King and Audie Blaylock. It’s a fine, textbook example of straightforward bluegrass; the guys jump right in and don’t let up until the last note. Closing track Stagger Lee has a similar feel, with the band delivering a strong, uptempo version of the traditional blues number.
With help from Ned Luberecki and Stephen Mougin in the studio, Rock Hearts has turned in a crisp, professional recording for their debut. Watching live clips of the group on YouTube, however, proves that the excellent picking and singing here has little to do with studio magic. Rock Hearts is an extremely talented band both instrumentally and vocally. I would have loved a few more songs here to round things out, and am looking forward to hearing more from the group.
For more information on Rock Hearts, visit them online. Their new album is available from several online music retailers.