Mississippi, both the river and the state, as the great crossroads of America, stands at the forefront of American technological and social development. Riverland (Red Beet Records), the excellent new folk album by Eric Brace, Peter Cooper, and Thomm Jutz, celebrates change in America by focusing on that mighty river. This fitting tribute to the greatest waterway in North America would be recognizable in many ways to its greatest storyteller, Mark Twain, whose life spanned most of the 1800s. It would also have been familiar to Twain in tackling the great American sin, the badge of inferiority pressed upon Black Americans for their race.
The tracks on Riverland cover a wide swath of American history. “Drowned and Washed Away” addresses the Great Flood of 1927, while “Southern Mule” tells the tale of a traveling mule. In a paean to the changing nature of technology, “King of the Keelboat Men” recounts the twilight years of legendary keelboat man Mike Fink. There’s a Civil War story here: General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan take the great city of Vicksburg, MS (“Down Along the River”).
“Old Tom T. and Brother Wil,” which was written as an exchange between the legendary country singer Tom T. Hall and Baptist minister Will Campbell, is a standout track. Tom T. Tall will be well known to readers, but Will Campbell may not be. A Baptist chaplain at Ole Miss in the 1950s, Campbell supported integration, and left the university when he received death threats for his courageous position. This track, as I say, covers material as old as Huckleberry Finn in discussing the American original sin of racism. A recording of Brother Wil speaking ties this song onto the next, a cover of Campbell’s “Mississippi Magic,” a song about racial tension in the 1960s southern United States.
The journalistic backgrounds of Eric Brace and Peter Cooper — along with Thomm Jutz’s production acumen — make this album what it is. Eric Brace, formerly of the Washington Post, is a DC legend, and was the guiding force behind the popular band Last Train Home. Peter Cooper was the music writer for the Tennessean, teaches at Vanderbilt, and curates the exhibits at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Their knowledge of history, and their ability to suss out the social important in personal narratives, proves invaluable to this project.
As a folk-cum-bluegrass hybrid, the playing here is uniformly strong. Cooper, Brace, and Jutz’s triple guitars — and Jutz’s resonator — weave seamlessly between melody and harmony, and the addition of Lynn Williams’s drums adds a pulse to this album. Mike Compton’s mandolin work is strong, as is Tammy Rogers’s fiddle.
One final note: The liner notes to Riverland are absolutely excellent. They include photographs and lyrics, which really add to the experience of the album. Even if you can listen to the album without purchasing it, you should buy this album to get ahold of these gems.