Album Review: Coal Town Rounders – How It Used To Be – Traditional string music done right

It’s hard to explain to folks why some bands have “it” and some don’t, especially in the traditional music space. After all, every traditional band has a guitar, a banjo, and maybe a mandolin and/or fiddle. But the difference is all in the execution. The Coal Town Rounders are the kind of band that can do it well. The lead vocal is fantastic, the supporting cast is well balanced, and it all comes together for a delightful, authentic traditional music flavor.

The opener “Coal Headstone” is excellent. The picking, the vocals, and the overall feeling of the song is exactly what lovers of traditional country music are looking for. It’s got the kind of melancholy worthy of the genre, but is plenty upbeat as well. It just sounds like hard life and resilient spirit. “Please don’t bury me as deep as the coal. Keep me closer to the sunshine.” As a descendant of southern Ohio coal miners, this track definitely hit me hard.

“O the Pain You Put Me Through” is a wonderful relationship song. Well, in point of fact it’s about a relationship that never happened. It’s about unrequited love. There’s something about the high, lonesome sound of a good bluegrass vocal that can make this heartache ring true. It’s also some of the best pickin’ on the album, with a few nice mandolin and banjo solos. It’s just a good old fashioned bluegrass tune.

“Our Country Home” slows things down a bit. It sounds like the kind of track you’d want to hear while eating at Cracker Barrel. It’s nostalgic and kind. There are some of the best harmonies on the whole album here. Also, the minor chord turn and the tragic lyrics really work together in unexpected ways. It’s not the kind of song you’d want to dance to necessarily, but definitely helps the moonshine go down smooth.

“Cora Lee” is a toe tapper. One of the fastest songs on the album, it’s a song that will get listeners up out of their seats. It is a ballad for a woman, of course, who seems to have stolen his heart. Holding to the romance theme, but in a much slower tune, “Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms” sounds like New Orleans. The banjo and the standup bass steal the show on this one. And, to be frank, the lead vocal really makes it pop. One could imagine this tune being played at the Stray Cat on Frenchman Street. It’s sweetly sad.

“A Ship Cast Into Stone” has a nice, rhythmic sound. It’s about the story of a relationship. The music plods along and has that awesome fast-strumming, high pitched mandolin sound that makes it feel quintessentially roots country. The song’s desire is to deliver a love-filled message in tragic circumstances.

“Cherokee Shuffle” is a classic dancing song and the banjo really shines. It’s custom made for the square dance floor! It’s impossible to listen to without wanting to dance. It also happens to be a fabulously relaxing instrumental song. The concluding “Snakes in the Garden” is one of the best on the album, delivered with a soft and sincere vocal. The guitar and bass played with a bow gives it a totally different sound. Although the other toe tappers on the album are really good in their own ways, this more contemplative, introspective style suits the Coal Town Rounders quite nicely.

This is a great album from start to finish. Fans of traditional country music need to make it a priority to hear this band. Folks who like bluegrass and other derivatives of roots country music will like it too. It’s deeply American, fundamentally romantic, and completely enjoyable.

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