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Published: 2001/06/19
by Blake Shester

Hand Hewn- Dry Branch Fire Squad

"Hand Hewn" – Dry Branch Fire Squad 82161-0466-2

In an age of progressive bluegrass and new acoustic music, a return to
traditional sounds is more than welcome. For the past two decades the Dry
Branch Fire Squad has been a purveyor of rural American music, and – while
the band has gone through several incarnations and personnel changes – one can
always expect solid picking and heartfelt singing. On the latest Dry Branch
Fire Squad release, "Hand Hewn", the band embraces the roots of bluegrass
while covering a gamut of musical styles from old-tyme to four-part gospel
harmonies to tasteful banjo and mandolin instrumentals.

Bobby Maynard kicks the album off with some punchy banjo licks to the
Stephen Foster tune, Angelina Baker, while front man and mandolinist
Ron Thomason belts out the gritty and slurred vocals for which he is known.
Imagine Norman Blake with the vivacity of Uncle Dave Macon. Instead of
following up with another bluegrass tune we hear the folk tune, I Saw A
Man At The Close Of Day, complete with fiddle and clawhammer banjo. A
pleasant change from the first tune, the variation of genres from song to song is a
common occurrence throughout "Hand Hewn".

Although the picking on the album does not push any envelopes, the beauty of
the instrumentation lies in the modesty of the solos and accompaniment.
Never ostentatious, it always fits the piece and blends to achieve a
less-is-more ambiance. The 15 tracks are each unique and are arranged
in an unpredictable manner to minimize monotony. Notice the seamless
transitions of a cappella gospel to up-tempo mandolin instrumental to
waltzy ballad to old-time folk.

Along with Thomason and Maynard comes banjo/guitarist Suzanne Thomas, who
also provides outstanding tenor vocals on just about every tune. Her talent
shines in the old-time rendition of The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird,
where she accompanies her singing impeccably on the clawhammer banjo. Also listen for
her piercing tenor on the Stanley Brothers' gospel song, Two Coats.

Album highlights include the Bill Monroe inspired instrumental, Nazeer,
Nazeer, which provides a forum for Thomason and Maynard to cut loose and
showcase their virtuosity. Also, Thomason's solo effort on the traditional
folk tune, Midnight, the Unconquered Outlaw achieves a sound
reminiscent of John Prine. By adding some beautiful guitar crosspicking, Thomason gives
the song some down-home spirit. Fans of traditional bluegrass will also
enjoy hearing guest artist and legend Hazel Dickens sing a poignant version
of her Black Lung, a song about the horrors of coal-mining. Maynard
closes the album off with a rip-snorting rendition of Earl Scruggs' Lonesome
Road Blues, leaving the listener satisfied, yet still craving more.

Although most of the material on Hand Hewn is covers of traditional
tunes, each one is given new life through the interpretations of the Dry Branch
Fire Squad. Their choice of such uncommon tunes adds to the musical talent
exhibited throughout the album. The band manages to find something new and
original in each piece, and because of the spectacular range of musical
stylings, the listener's interest will never wane. For those that are jaded
on bluegrass musicians trying to be jazz or rock stars, pick up "Hand Hewn"
and hear the purity of the music; the way it was meant to sound.

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