It’s not easy to make old time music sound good in the 21st century, but the Craven Family Band are experts at exactly that. They have a knack for both singing and songwriting in a way that sounds like the 1930s. But it also sounds fresh and new. Fans of Pokey Lafarge, Justin Townes Earle, and other artists in the neotraditional Americana revival will love this album.
“Smokey Milltown Home” hit awfully close for me, a native Pittsburgher. The song echoed many of the stories I heard growing up. With ancestors on both sides working in mills, the song struck me as the kind that those hard working men would have enjoyed. Upon first listen, I couldn’t wait to share it with friends and family. The banjo, the gang harmonies, and the clever songwriting all come together for a wonderful toe tapping song.
“Love of Steel” is a slower song, but still packs a powerful punch via emotive lyrics. “Steel trucks buckling our highways that they don’t fix no more…” It’s a story of life after the mills. Reflecting on the effect of the infrastructure and the people when the mills left. Again hitting a bit harder than anticipated, it’s an emotional song that residents of the Rust Belt will find touching, if sad.
The traditional bluegrass “Leavin’ the Ozarks” highlights some phenomenal picking skills. Showing that the band is more than lyric gimmicks, the fast-paced finger picking from guitar, banjo, and mandolin help to show off an accomplished group of musicians. Their vocal harmonies are nothing to sneeze at either. It’s evident that there are years of experience between them. “I’m leaving the Ozarks moving mighty fast. Every mile I’m moving is a mile from my past.” It’s an American theme of redemption via new beginnings. New opportunities trump a demonizing past.
“Dear Hearts and Gentle People” reminds listeners that fiddles are important in American roots music. The meandering melody and folksy lyrics come together for a raw sound. “I love those dear hearts and gentle people who live in my home town.” This track really does Garrison Keillor proud. Did they write this about Lake Wobegon? The song reminds listeners of the finest music from the first half of the 20th century. The words are quaint, the picking is fresh, and the song overall brings a smile to the face.
“Life’s Railway to Heaven” is a bit like the classic hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.” From the beat and tone to the overall mood of the song, it’s about living life well with a hope toward heaven. “Blessed Savior thou will guide us til we reach that blissful shore where the angels wait to join us.” It’s definitely more than gospel “inspired.” It’s an out and out traditional worship song. It shows, though, that not all hymns have the morbidity of a funeral dirge. Instead, these musicians inspire listeners to put their eyes to heaven. Glorious!
The final track, “Angel Band” sounds like it came right off of the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. (In fact, the Stanley Brothers did perform the song on that very album.) The version on the Craven Family Band album is a little different, but still an effective classic. Listeners will find it fits the rest of the album. Reflecting the religiosity of the previous track, it seems that the Craven Family Band has more than a musical appreciation for the sentiments in classic gospel music.
This is an album for a variety of music fans. It’s both a bluegrass album and an Americana album. Folks who enjoy roots music will enjoy this one start to finish. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to try to understand distinct American art forms. It’s frankly refreshing that there are still people writing new music of this variety. It’s keeping something human and important alive in American culture. It’s an album that should be celebrated by folks outside of the “emerging artist” crowd. Consider passing this album onto older folks who will enjoy what these talented musicians have accomplished on The Flower Grown.