The last musical recommendation I got from the late lamented 9513 was Scott Holstein, who Brody Vercher pointed out a few weeks ago. His independent CD Cold Coal Town has been produced by Scott himself alongside dobro player extraordinaire Randy Kohrs. Impressively, the entire album was recorded in one night (in Kohrs’ studio in Nashville), and great credit goes to the very accomplished band. Bluegrass backings and a soulful fusion of bluegrass-country-blues in Scott’s passionately smoky voice set this record apart. The songs, all written by Scott, are mainly rooted in his West Virginia coalmining family background, and the quality is exceptionally high.
‘The Spell’ opens the set with the protagonist railing against the woman he loves despite her “wicked ways”. It seems quite appropriate for it to lead into ‘Walls Of Stone’, the blues-infused lament of a prisoner sentenced to 99 years in gaol after killing his unfaithful wife. The sprightly instrumental ‘Leavin Charleston’ showcases the band’s tight, sparkling musicianship. Their more lyrical playing comes to the fore in another instrumental cut, the stately ’The Holstein Waltz’, which is lovely. Scott does not play an instrument on the album, but composed the tunes.
‘Boone County Blues’ is one of those cheerful sounding expressions of deep sadness which are common in bluegrass, again with really great picking. It is, perhaps, the least exceptional song here, but is still very good. The charming ‘Clinch Mountain Hills’ is a tribute to the Stanley brothers, written by Carter Stanley’s graveside and channelling his voice. Don Rigsby provides the high tenor harmony counterpoint to Scott’s gravelly baritone.
I don’t remember ever seeing a country song with a Latin title before. ‘Montani Semper Liberi’ is the official motto of Scott’s home state of West Virginia (meaning “mountaineers [are] always free”), and the song tells a dramatic story, with a young man choosing not to take sides in the Civil War, just as the state was formed in June 1863, declaring:
Mama stitched my uniform
But no colors do I choose
They’ll never take this mountain
The gray nor the blue
Cause mountaineers are always free
And almost heaven’s good enough for me
Upon this land I’ll state my creed
Mountaineers are always free
The grim reality of life in the coal towns fuels much of Scott’s best work. The title track has the protagonist leaving his childhood home for a better future, and reminiscing about the hardworking miner father who “left one day and came back dead”, having advised his son not to follow him into the mines. In ‘Roll, Coal, Roll’, meanwhile, the protagonist is a weary trucker moving coal down from the mountain mines.
The acappella Black Water quietly and compellingly tells the true story of a fatal flood caused by a coal company’s unsafe practices in the 70s, when several communities were destroyed and over 100 people were killed at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia by coal slurry after a dam broke. Perhaps the highlight of a very fine record, this sounds like a traditional folk song, and has Don Rigsby and Randy Kohrs on harmony:
Coal company said “God is to blame”
They built the dam “but He brought the rain”
Truth was known throughout the land
Never do trust a company man
Black water, black water
So black and so deep
And under black water forever I’ll sleep
Death angels are calling out to me
Black water is rolling down Buffalo Creek
Death was the scene even high in the tree
Fathers and children and mothers to be
Nowhere to run as black water comes down
And so is the lie of a coal mining town
A similar flood seen from the first person, this time caused by a coal company’s reckless clearance of tree cover on the mountain, sees locals seeking refuge, but there ‘Ain’t No Higher Ground’ to run to.
This is a fantastic record, and definitely my favourite of the year so far. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t make my end of year top 10.
You can currently purchase the CD from Scott’s website, although I understand wider distribution is being sought.