For a musical genre with a reputation for respecting the “old ways”, contemporary bluegrass offers a wide margin for innovation these days. This year has seen impressive releases by a bluegrass band that plays with a jam band sensibility (The Infamous Stringdusters’ Rise Sun) and one that weaves the strands of its members’ North, Central, and South American roots into its sound (Che Apalache’s Rearrange My Heart). While the Infamous Stringdusters and Che Apalache are blazing new paths into the music, there is still plenty of room for tradition in bluegrass. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys prove this nicely on their new album, Toil, Tears & Trouble.
Winners of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2018 Emerging Artist of the Year Award, Po’ Ramblin’ Boys began in an East Tennessee distillery. CJ Lewandowski (mandolin player and frontman) was playing solo for distillery patrons when he recruited his friends, Josh Rinkel (guitar) and Jereme Brown (banjo) to form a band that would play there. The band was rounded out by bassist Jasper Lorentzen, who was working in the distillery’s tasting room. In addition to the Boys’ fine musicianship, Laura Orshaw brings her distinctive fiddle playing to Toil, Tears & Trouble.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys open and close Toil, Tears & Trouble with songs that reflect Lewandowski’s love of the Ozarks-style bluegrass he grew up with in Missouri. Mac Patterson’s “Next Train South” is an upbeat kiss-off, while closer “Longing for the Ozarks”, written by Jimmy Orchard, is a toe-tapper about returning to the region after being away for too long.
While these opening and closing songs are relatively lighthearted, Toil, Tears & Trouble isn’t merely a fun, alliterative album title; its truth in advertising. Some seriously heartbreaking songs are found at the heart of Toil, Tears & Trouble. “Hickory, Walnut & Pine”, written by Slaid Cleaves and Nathan Hamilton, tells a familiar tale of progress arriving in a rural area, but with a tragic twist. “They’ll cut down the trees / And they’ll name your new streets / Hickory, walnut and pine.”
Progress and the economy figure into Jamie O’Hara’s “Bidding America Goodbye” as well. Previously recorded by Tanya Tucker, the song tells the story of a family farm loss, in the form of a letter from the bank to the farmer.
The saddest song on the album, “Ice on the Timber”, by Frank D. Ray and Lisa Almedia Ray, opens with “’39 was a bad year in these mountains / Daddy tried to do the best he could.” It becomes a devastating tale of loss that is even more emotionally flattening for the plainspoken way the story unfolds. Within the context of “Ice on the Timber, the line “Oh Lord, it was cold”, might well be the saddest lyric on all of Toil, Tears & Trouble.
While none of the other tales told on Toils, Tear & Trouble are as melancholy as “Ice on the Timber”, there are plenty of other cold hard truths told on the album, including a cover of an old song performed by George Jones that happens to be called “Cold Hard Truth”.
While Toil, Tears & Trouble is primarily a collection of well-chosen covers, guitarist Josh Rinkel contributes a true-story original “Old New Borrowed and Blue”. It’s a mid-tempo reflection on attending the wedding of a first love to another man. “Old New Borrowed and Blue” fits nicely among the cover songs, and hopefully is an indication of future original compositions from band members on future albums.