Dry Branch Fire Squad
Memories That Bless and Burn
The opening notes and first lines announce that this is not a typical bluegrass album. And it's not. Leader Ron Thomason uses this collection to define his vision of traditional bluegrass gospel. These nine new and seven reissued tracks make a striking and powerful collection of songs, which get back to the spiritual roots of this increasingly popular (and popularized) branch of folk music.
Thoughtful and slow without being melancholy, the title song sets you down in the middle of a story - or toward the end of one:
And now to God I will return
I know my time is drawing near
Let memories that bless and burn
Heal your heart with tears
The song has all the hallmarks of a traditional bluegrass gospel masterpiece, including a very unusual set of chord changes, but it's the work of Suzanne Thomas. Other aspects of the album that stand out are John Baker's tenor vocal on several of the reissued tracks. He's absolutely breathtaking on "Were You There." The songs also highlight a key feature of the bluegrass tradition of gospel music: its remarkably concrete and direct form of religious experience: "Hide You in the Blood," "Looking for the Stone," "Were You There," "Dip Your Fingers in Some Water," "Touch the Hem of His Garment." Mainstream gospel music has come to stress scripture, with lyrics stitched together from quoted passages. These lyrics focus on blood, stone, water, cloth - simple physical reminders and remnants. You are there.
In order to create this album, Thomason has included seven tracks from three previous albums. Despite this, it maintains an overall consistency in sound - if anything, maybe too much so. Of the nine new tracks, five are hymns performed a capella (one is a duet with Hazel Dickens). Of the remaining songs, "The Gospel Way" (track 12) and "That Home Far Away" (Track 14) sound virtually identical - same key, same instrumental intro, same melody, and same rhyme in the title refrain. Then "When I Went Down to the Valley to Pray" (Track 15) continues the same predominating rhyme. On an album that already covers a narrow range of styles and religious themes, this seems like bad planning. I, for one, would love to hear more material written and sung by Suzanne Thomas and more of the soulful, thoughtful playing of the title track.
All in all, the various incarnations of the Dry Branch Fire Squad represented here give excellent, sometimes inspired performances of inspirational songs. This is a classy album. -HB