If ever an album title evoked and embodied the mood and tenor of the year in which it was released, this follow-up to their acclaimed 2018 debut might win the Appalachian Road Show crew a few awards just for their prescience. But it's not pandemics, protests, lockdowns and riots that form the underlying tone of "Tribulation."
The album is an exploration of the musical and cultural roots of the people who have inhabited the mountains from Georgia to Maine for more than three centuries, whose lives even in relatively good times have been continuously subject to the trials of disease, famine, war and social unrest. The music that sustained them, drawn from the ancestral tunes and ballads from across the sea (and some borrowed from the African slaves and, later, freed men) became the main root of what we today call "country" music.
Two decades ago, at the time the "O Brother" phenomenon brought a wave of attention to bluegrass and the older country music that had spawned it, banjo player Barry Abernathy and fiddler Jim Van Cleve were founding members of Mountain Heart, a band steeped in traditional bluegrass with a strong inclination toward the gospel traditions of their Appalachian heritage. Mandolinist Darrell Webb, likewise a native of the Southern mountains, was a veteran of several bands. Abernathy and Webb developed the concept of a thematic stage performance, including period attire, that would musically convey the history, struggles, and abiding faith of the Appalachian experience. Soon joined by Van Cleve, the cast now also includes the well-traveled Todd Phillips on bass and a new face in guitarist Zeb Snyder.
The vintage of the 16 tracks (including a handful of spoken word pieces) ranges from 17th century English ballads ("Beneath That Willow Tree") to relatively recent songs like Robert Earl Keen's "99 Years and One Dark Day," with classic American fare like Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" in between. Some are done in straight-ahead bluegrass mode, but among the most striking cuts is the modal (minor key) "Don't Want To Die In The Storm," a prime example of the haunting "mountain sound" that draws so many to what Bill Monroe called the "ancient tones."
"Sales Tax On The Women" comes from early country stars the Dixon Brothers, it's a lighthearted jab at the new retail taxes appearing in the Depression years. The title track is from another star of the dawn of country music, E. C. Ball, drawn directly from the Book of Revelations, a testament to the stark but unyielding faith that carried the mountaineers through their hard times.
"Appalachian" may be part of their name, but for this quintet of experienced and exquisitely talented musicians, it's also part of their DNA. They are as much to be seen as to be heard, and when the current tribulations have passed us by, it will be well worth going to see them on the road again.