Folk CD Review: Mountain Man’s “Magic Ship” — There’s Magic in Them Thar Hills!

Originally published in The Arts Fuse

The Southern Appalachians, with their swell of landless ‘frontiersmen,’ provided the original shock troops of America’s imperialist westward expansion, from Indiana to the Ozarks, from Texas to Southern California. But the cultural influence of this colonial-era immigrant group was more culturally diffuse than is normally thought. Does Shays’ Rebellion in Western Massachusetts and the Whiskey Rebellion in the western counties to its south share a common provenance? From where did the Overmountain Men and the Green Mountain Boys inherit their ragtag militarism? From whence came New Hampshire’s Derry and Londonderry? Yes, New England, it’s true. The hillbilly fever lived (and lives) among you.

This potted history is necessary to introduce Mountain Man’s fine second album, Magic Ship. This trio originates from Bennington, Vermont and specializes in  appropriations of Appalachian vocals. Appropriated, that is, for their own whimsical purposes. Ironically, despite popular belief, they didn’t have to go very far for their material. In Bennington Alan Lomax  recorded (in 1939) mountain-dweller J.C. Kennison (a Scots/English border name) performing “The Green Mountain Boys” and “Young Beichan.” (Vermont, like North Carolina or Mississippi, has had its fair share of song catchers.)

The a capella ballads of the eastern American highlands borrowed much from their European origins, but distance decreed that these performers would apply a more strident, angular, and nasal vocalization. Over time, old songs of sorrow morphed from stories of loss of an old land to foreboding about displacement in a new one. This reinvention nurtures country and bluegrass — but the spirit of the originals were eventually lost. For example, if one follows the course of a song like “East Virginia” through recordings, from Buell Kazee to the Carter Family on to the Stanley Brothers and Joan Baez, what’s been abandoned becomes clear. Mountain Man attempts to revive the lost, wild innocence of these tunes.

Mountain Man produces mesmerizing harmonies, inspired by the Coon Creek Girls, the Kossoy Sisters or Kathy and Carol (Kathleen Larisch and Carol McComb). The trio also maintains a gentleness and dreaminess akin to Jean Ritchie or Vashti Bunyan. They are distinctive in their comfort in making the traditional their own, shaping it their own way. Mountain Man (Amelia Meath, Molly Sarle and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig) draws on the paradoxical approach of such American ‘primitive’ guitarists John Fahey, Jack Rose or Daniel Bachman. They revamp tradition, but the result still feels true to form.

“AGT” is recognizable as a reel, with lyrics that feel simultaneously old and new. “Blue Mountain” could be described as ‘freshened up antique.’ The tune is not sentimentalized, as would be by today’s commercial purveyors of the vernacular, transforming the song into a maudlin tale or a conservative gripe. Mountain Man’s performance is dreamy, innocent, and timeless, yearning for “blueberry wine” from the “blueberry glen.”

Amelia Meath, Molly Sarle and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig are Mountain Man. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

In Magic Ship we also see Mountain Man drawing on some popular styles. In “Stella” they utilize a rhythmic vocal layer that recalls a capella Soul or Doo Wop; the hymn-like “Bright Morning Stars” sounds as if it could have been performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers or Alison Krauss. They also recall female keyboard and vocal trio Au Revoir Simone in how they use their voices and their lyrical ingenuity. What comes through in this album, as it did in earlier Made The Harbor, is the exhilarating power the group generates through its commitment to authenticity and sincerity.

And the enthusiasm for folk’s past, particularly its neglected nooks, from these singers up Vermont way, should be welcomed. There is often a disconnect between regions when thinking about the origins of “folkiness.” The American Northeast is thought of as a consumer or repurposer of traditional American vernacular cultures. We lose sight of revelatory musical history because of this neat division. A Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention not only reproduces the sounds of 17th century Puritan rote singing, but those that echoed through an 18th century Alabama Baptist church. The fact is that when Vermont’s Mountain Man brings us its Appalachian vocal stylings the group is venturing into the hollers of both the Green and the Blue Ridge Mountains. And there’s magic in them thar hills!

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