Living life to the full through a masterful blend of folk, bluegrass and old-time country.
The first impression on listening to these songs around virtuosos on clawhammer banjo and flat-picking guitar is that this entire collection must have been something discovered nearly a century ago by the great ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. For their debut album Humbletown, otherwise Morgan Carnes and Dylan Lewis, show immense knowledge of and reverence for their Appalachian musical heritage. With their three bandmates including producer Dalton Coffey they pass on that tradition while at the same time giving this glorious mix of folk, bluegrass and old-time country a sensitive modern tilt to ensure such fine music carries on down the generations. And if any reader with an aversion to banjos is about to turn the page, don’t, this is one of the most accessible and enjoyable entry points you could wish for.
Carnes and Lewis say that Humbletown was “born on the prairie” which could account for the wide-open feel to some of their songs. In contrast, others are as mystical and close as a glade somewhere in the Blue Ridge mountains. There is a distinctly autobiographical element to the duo’s writing. A dominant theme is how life choices and events collide to determine where we find ourselves today. Vocally Carnes and Lewis have a smooth relaxing, therapeutic sound as they draw the listener into their world. Whether as a duo or with their band they have performed alongside Trout Steak Revival, Woodbelly, Charlie Parr, Jalan Crossland, and John Craigie. They are also competitive, having participated in the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition and winning the ‘2018 South Dakota Folk Off’ contest.
Opening at a brisk clip ‘Hold You Up’ is one half telling the other that they cannot go on with such an unbalanced relationship, “But I can’t be the one to hold you up/ Gotta let it all run dry, feel like you’re dying”. Her traditional clawhammer style allows Carnes to make her instrument add a voice to this exhortation. ‘Pretty Little Things’ switches back and forth from Carnes wistfully musing, “Looking through you/ At everything that I had left behind”, before Lewis strums with the pace of a Spanish flamenco guitarist as together they look back to where things went wrong,””Memories of the days that I could not keep still/ Looking for the spaces I could never fill”. From “Don’t cry for me, sweet Anna Lee/ You know you’re the keeper of my stars” to “I flew from the gutter into the arms of another” ‘Anna Lee’ is loaded with regret. The lightness of their vocals and gentle picking adds to a sense of acceptance. A feature of these songs is their lack of self-pity. As Humbletown say, these are about choices, not all of which were particularly well-made or turned out very happily. ‘Sunshine in the Rain’ is about recovery. Halting vocals and instrumentation with a bluesy feel underline recuperation from lost love is not a straight line.
As well as emotionally Humbletown also have a great knack of conveying a sense of place. Inspired by a visit to the Joshua Tree Lewis on mandolin gives ‘Drink to the Desert’ space as vast as that arid location. With Coffey he duels as if in a western film soundtrack wondering what it must really be like to live in such an inhospitable environment.
If there is one song that summarises the album it is the final track, ‘Vines’. Though instrumentally it is another catchy tune, lyrically there is a stark reminder to live life to its full potential. “When I awoke, my life was gone/ And the vines they grew, grew, grew, grew, and grew/ And the path I chose to walk went to the earth again”. On the strength of this sparkling debut, Humbletown cannot be accused of letting life pass them by. Morgan Carnes and Dylan Lewis are masters of their instruments and through their perceptive lyrics they show that traditional old-time music can be put into a very effective contemporary context.