Album Review: Holcombe Family String Band – ‘Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing!’

Holcombe Family String Band – ‘Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing!’

An undeniable superpower of musical expression is the ability to encapsulate a specific time and place in the blanket of human history. Holcombe Family String Band’s new album Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing accomplishes just that without taking themselves too seriously. As I sit and listen to the album’s short, salty, and endearingly standard tunes on a freezing cold, blustery March morning, I am immediately transported to a riverboat rendezvous, a gathering of gypsy nomads that winds through a bayou jungle lit by firefly. There is the smell of tobacco smoke, plaid tablecloths, strings of light bulbs bouncing slowly to the pulse of river waves and percussive up-right bass. Like a hazy mirage illuminated by kerosene lamp, dashing dance partners donning fedoras and suspenders step and sway to the beat, fueled by red wine as soft as velvet. There is a full moon, hanging low, as golden yellow as a block of cheddar cheese.

The first track ‘Hard Times’ is successful in setting the tone for the album. There is the feeling of suave debauchery – that all sorts of petty laws are being broken in the midst of the tune, none of which we will mention here out of respect for both mood and mystery.

The fourth track of the album, ‘River Black River’ is an unabashed conversation with what feels like an autonomous body of water, flowing with agency and personality and serves as an explicit acknowledgement of landscape as a driving character. The song trapezes the distance between bygone eras and a gathering of friends along the Mississippi in the year 2016. Textural percussion creates a community vibe – almost like the whole boat is playing along to the lament. The lyrics tell a story of depression and despair, but still manage to exude the sort of mischievous half-smile that is consistent throughout the album.

Midway through the album, ‘Oh Celestine!” starts as a slow dance with a sweetheart, but quickly picks up into what feels like a full Charlston. The engine is steaming now, folks, and the boat is rocking.

Holcombe Family String Band is feel-good music in the midst of a hard-knock life. It’s music that gets you out of the house and into the nearest body of water. There are crunchy trumpet melodies, fiddles possessed by the river gods. Nuns will skinny dip, windows will fog and this merry band of river rats will have you wiggling your shoulders and bouncing on the lap of a mustached stranger if you’re not careful. Your grandma will love it, if your grandma is a total badass.

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