The Cumberland Gap Connection is a little-known bluegrass band, but one who has given me a very pleasant surprise with this album (on Kindred Records). I understand it is their fourth, although it’s the first I’ve come across (thanks to a link posted on The 9513 a few weeks ago). The members hail from Kentucky and Tennessee, and the record was recorded in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee.
Usual lead singer Mike Bentley has an attractive smooth tenor voice, laid back style, and natural understated sense of phrasing, and is also a fine songwriter who was responsible for five of the album’s twelve tracks. He also plays guitar, and his talents provide the band’s focus and the core of the record’s appeal. My favorite of these (and one of the album’s highlights) is the dejected ‘Waiting At the Harbor’, a very well written song with some interesting imagery. One of life’s lost souls, the protagonist of this song has no idea of what to do with his life:
How can you find a home when you can’t move on?
Feels like I’m waiting at the harbor for a train
On a similar theme and almost as good is the opening track ‘Travel All Alone’, which reflects thoughtfully on regret for past choices leading to the loss of a loving home.
The high lonesome sound of ‘Ode To The Mountain Man’ is about a father teaching the protagonist “how to be a good man”, in a way which shows all those country living anthems they might just be missing the point:
It ain’t about where you come from
It’s about where you stand
Just living in the mountains don’t make you a mountain man…
You might live in the city in a mansion doing well
Or you might own a two room shack on top of the hill
The almighty dollar don’t make you good or bad
It’s what’s inside that you let out that makes the mountain man
I assume this is specifically about, and inspired by, Bentley’s late father, who died in 2006 and to whom he dedicates his work on the record.
The obligatory gospel number, ‘Gonna Settle Down’, features prominent high harmonies from the band’s bass player Bryan Russell. Russell also sings lead on a couple of tracks, His voice is higher and thinner than Bentley’s and is not quite as mellifluous, but sounds quintessentially bluegrass and works well on his tracks. Of the two, I prefer ‘Greyhound Bus’ (written by Chris West), where he is desperately chasing after his girl who left town. Russell’s own song ‘Andy And Susanna’ is a happier love story. Banjo player Rod Smith also gets a writing credit, as he composed the album’s one instrumental. ‘Ten Bears Run’. The other band member is mandolin player Clint Hurd, and the musical palette is expanded with some guest musicians, including Alan Bibey on mandolin on the two tracks on which Russell sings lead, and Justin Moses on fiddle and dobro.
Steve Gulley, who I think produced the album (although he isn’t formally credited as such), wrote my favorite track ‘Let’s Find A Way’. This plaintive wish to return to the emotions of early days of a love is beautifully sung and features subtle harmonies from Steve and Debbie Gulley which add to the feel. Another of my favorites is Tim Johnson’s lovely tale of getting a romantic second chance, ‘Dance This Way’, with perfectly measured phrasing and tender emotion from Mike Bentley.
‘Home In Tennessee’ is a wistful longing for a childhood home (written by Charlie Boys) which is warmly sung. The title track is a wailing mid-tempo heartbreak number written by Tim Stafford, Terry Herd and Robert G Starnes. It’s a well written song, but although I enjoyed the track, I felt it could have done with a little more urgency in the delivery.
Closer ‘Putting the Hammer Down’ is an up-tempo number designed to show off the band’s muscianship, but is not very interesting as a song.
This album was a very unexpected pleasure, thanks mainly to the excellent material and Mike Bentley’s voice. It’s well worth checking out.
Check out the music on the band’s website.