The Lonesome River Band: No Turning Back

Kyle Deas

One song is atrocious. Four more are unremarkable. But the remaining nine tracks are accomplished, straightforward, bluegrassy goodness.

The Lonesome River Band

No Turning Back

Label: Rural Rhythm
US Release Date: 2008-09-09
UK Release Date: 2008-09-15

The Lonesome River Band have ostensibly been together since the mid-'80s, but they've gone through so many lineups that even longtime fans may not recognize the guys on the front cover. But even as musicians have cycled through, the elements that define the band's sound -- outstanding musicianship, vocal harmonies, and unabashedly sentimental lyrics -- have stayed the same.

No Turning Back, then, is a solid but unsurprising album. Since 1990, the anchor of the Lonesome River Band has been Sammy Shelor's banjo picking, and his prodigious talent is evident throughout, especially on uptempo tracks like "Long Way From Here" and the driving opener, "Them Blues". Shelor trades off on the melody lines with Mike Hartgrove's fiddle and Andy Ball's mandolin, but the rhythm section really deserves mention here -- Brandon Rickman's guitar and Mike Anglin's bass are what keep the songs firmly on track. Rickman also provides most of the lead vocals, and while his voice is a little more country than bluegrass, the dissonant harmonies (courtesy, I think, of Ball) quickly dispel any thoughts of Alan Jackson.

The band certainly aren't afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Many of the songs here would seem laughable were they not delivered with such complete sincerity. "Dime Store Rings" starts as a tale of young love, but then follows the couple through the different stages of their life -- marriage, parenting, retirement, and finally death. "They've got a five-year plan towards a little piece of land and the start to a pretty good life / A love that's bigger than the West Texas sky," Rickman sings, and the song is somehow strengthened by how ordinary the story is. "Wires and Wood", one of the album's best tracks, is (I can't quite believe I'm writing this) a love song to a guitar. "Wish I had her back again / I never had a better friend / Sometimes she comes to me in dreams, and all night long we play and sing." And somehow, they pull it off.

In the end, though, The Lonesome River Band may be a little too talented for their own good. The music here throughout is so tight, so utterly controlled, that it becomes a little bland. There's no sense of danger, no sense that one of them might hit even a single wrong note. For whatever reason, this feeling worsens as the disc wears on, and so the first half of the disc -- which is nearly flawless -- far outshines the second. (At 14 tracks, the album is also far too long.) The band briefly regains momentum with the second-to-last song, the instrumental "Struttin' to Ferrum", where they relax ever-so-slightly to show off their soloing skills.

But they blow that momentum with the last song, "Flowers", which is truly awful, far and away the worst song on the album. Musically, the song is uninspiring: the fiddle and banjo are almost completely abandoned, replaced by the sort of tinkling piano favored by the people who record GarageBand loops. The lyrics tell the story of a recovering alcoholic who, a year or so in the past, forced his wife to get in the car with him and then drunkenly crashed the car. "And I'd take your place in this field of stone if I only had the power / Look what it took for me to finally bring you flowers," the protagonist says, and from the tone of the music, it's clear we're supposed to sympathize for the poor guy. I couldn't do it, though. In my view, kicking your alcoholism ceases to be redemptive when you have to kill your wife to do it. So the song just comes off as being in extremely poor taste.

It's unfortunate that No Turning Back ends in such an uninspiring manner, especially since the musicians are so accomplished. But knowing the Lonesome River Band, I'd expect them to be back with another disc in a year or two. I just hope that next time around their endgame is a little better.






'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.