[2 November 2010]
On May 1 of this year, Nashville and the surrounding regions of Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi were hit with unimaginable flooding. In what’s often been described as a “thousand-year flood”, record-breaking rains caused the Cumberland River to rise rapidly. While both the flood and the resulting casualties were oddly under-reported, the damage to the Grand Ole Opry House and other landmarks got some attention. Given Nashville’s musical history, it’s no surprise that musicians would release charitable flood relief projects, and Mike Farris and the Cumberland Saints’ EP The Night the Cumberland Came Alive sets a nice standard.
Since his time with the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies and Double Trouble, Farris has been building a discography merging roots, blues, and traditional gospel sounds (with some particular New Orleans influences). This new disc brings in some guests to join with Farris’s regular Roseland Rhythm Review, including the McCrary Sisters and Sam Bush. The guests merge perfectly, and there’s little sense here of an all-star assemblage, aside from the high quality of the music. The disc was recorded in a day at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, and it contains the raw energy you’d expect from a rough, enthusiastic session.
The opening title cut, as you might guess, specifically addresses the flood, with its narrator looking back from a distance on the night in question, noting that the flood should “remind you that you were born to die”. The thought could be morbid enough, especially taken in the context of the destruction around the city, but the energy in the song’s slow groove (as well as the traded solos) keeps it away from any dirge-like qualities. It’s a solid reminder to us, and for all the media vita gloom, the important element here is to be aware of life’s brevity. You know this (it’s nothing new), but it’s much more pleasant to be reminded of it through high-quality Americana than through Capuchin bones.
The next track, “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up” points out the great strength in Farris’s voice. Followers of the early part of Farris’s career might have missed it, but the man has a remarkable soul voice, and his a cappella opening lets him show it off even while holding it back. The gospel blues number lets him build momentum. It’s a powerful spiritual cut, with the group vocals and lead shouts creating working that momentum into something noteworthy.
The closing number “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down” (not an Elton John number) brings the disc to the crazed romp that it’s been working toward. The song features New Orleans-style brass and delivers a bit of a Dixieland feel. It’s easy to picture this sort of music inspiring impromptu aisle-dancing. If the EP opened with a reminder of death, it closes with a lively celebration. The lesson here is that if you think rain might drown your city, throw up your hands and keep the sun up as long as possible (and if you have do a little jig while you’re at it, feel free).
The Night the Cumberland Came Alive is a quick little EP, tossed together in a hurry and benefiting from the informality of its construction. Even so, it’s a well-made disc featuring a plenitude of talent. With the proceeds going to charity through the Rose Memorial Fund, it would be hard to complain too much about the disc. Fortunately, there’s no reason to.