Album Review: Levi Lowery – Roots and Branches (Winner of #NMF Episode 1)
Levi Lowery sounds like a tall drink of water, although I’ve never actually met him. I can just imagine him being one, though, because his voice has the low, authentic style to it. Then you hear him play the fiddle and feel right at home. A friend of mine calls it “God’s music,” this old time string music. It sounds like the hills. It sounds, for so many of us, like home. If I’m being frank, the album reminds me of my grandfathers and it’s hard not to think about their callouses, earned from hard work and plenty of picking. If you’re a fan of Americana or roots music, this might be your album of the year. It’s a uniquely built album, with the first half hearkening back to roots music and the second half, appropriately the “branches,” show the evolution of the music into newer, higher production styles. Both halves are great in their own right.
The album begins with a nice story about Lowery’s roots in the tradition, followed shortly thereafter by a multi-generational recording of the roots classic “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.” The instrumentation is as traditional as it can get. It sounds like some of the vocalists on it are pretty old, too. It’s a rich and beautiful track, beginning a wonderful treasure trove of great American music.
A few softer tunes, “The Old Spinning Wheel,” “Out of My Bondage,” and “Lorena” highlight the fiddle sweetly. They remind you of the kind of song many a young man may have danced to with his sweetheart. The songs are soft, harmonic, and endearing. Although the robust album (21 tracks!) is a bit more than we can cover in one review, these gems are worth mentioning for their quintessential roots style. These ones absolutely take me back in time.
One tune, “Soldier’s Joy,” reflects a similar hill country picking style that keeps listeners tapping toes and smiling. The banjo really shines on this bright and colorful tune. Listeners will note the long string lines that seem to go on forever. One can imagine barns full of ruddy youngsters spinning around to this delightful tune. It reflects an era in American music history stretching from the turn of the 20th century for several decades.
The second half of the album kicks off with incredible force on “Prodigal’s Postcard,” complete with a soaring vocal and powerful anthemic melody. It’s definitely clear how the two halves of the album fit together. “Too Late” has electric guitars with warm hues that allow for easy connections back to the “roots” while clearly pushing the sound into the next age. The vocal (channeled through the right side) comes through with a clarity and sincerity not often found in “modern” country music.
“Dance With the Devil” is one of the branches tunes that sounds the most like the roots. It’s a minimalist recording that really reflects Celtic and American southern tones. It’s lonesome and chilling. The following “Like They Should” is one of the best on the whole album. It’s a wonderful song that shows with the strings that it has a familiarity with classic music, while also bringing in production elements to make it feel more “modern.” It all comes together for a song that could be at home on the country top 40 alongside guys like Jason Isbell.
I really enjoy the stripped down acoustic flavor of “If I Could Run,” and it works nicely with plaintive lyrics. It really is a quintessential country song. It might not be the Garth Brooks arena rocking style, but it does the same trick in making your heart skip a few beats. The reflection on lifespan and tough decisions resonates incredibly well with me as a listener. I’m sure I’m not alone on saying some “amens” on this one.
The song that won the contest for Lowery and friends was “One Good Year.” You can immediately hear why it was such a favorite; Lowery’s vocal sounds like David Ramirez. The rest of the song is full-throated, hard driving country music. It really is the kind of song that should be on country radio. A lot of people would find much to like about the style and substance of this outstanding song. “Get these demons off my chest before I’m done…” In a similar vein as Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dyin,” it’s a song about making the most of life.
This is an album that roots and contemporary fans can agree to enjoy. If you are hosting a summer picnic, throw this album on shuffle and see what the people think. It’s hard to believe the same artist is behind such a wide variety of music, even within one tradition. It’s a great album from start to finish, but there are definitely some highlights that show off some outstanding picking chops, songwriting, vocals, and in the end the ability to synthesize country history into one cohesive, enjoyable album.