Various Artists

Hard Times in the Country

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It only takes a cursory look at the titles of the songs on Hard Times in the Country to get a clear picture of life in the rural South between 1927-1938. The Lee Brothers Trio bemoan a workingman's fate in "Cotton Mill Blues," while Blind Alfred Reed sounds nearly hopeless in "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Hard Times and Live." As Bill Malone writes in the liner notes, farmers in the south had experienced hard times before the Great Depression. Following the Civil War, America began to evolve into a country of urban centers and small farmers became sharecroppers or tenets. Despite the downbeat subject matter, Hard Times in the Country is -- musically speaking -- an enjoyable collection. Fiddle, guitar, and banjo accompany Kelly Harrell's vocal on the catchy "My Name Is John Johanna," while bright, bouncy banjo bolsters Uncle Dave Macon's lively "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train." Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster deliver "Bay Rum Blues," which sounds like a stripped-down version of a jug band song, and Lowe Stokes offers his unadorned opinion in "Prohibition Is a Failure." Besides providing a musical document of the rural south, the songs on this collection also offer an interesting juxtaposition to trends in country music (the 1990s and beyond). The earlier music is founded in the customs and habits of rural workingmen and women, and it's easy to imagine that players like Fisher Hendley had at least secondhand knowledge of a weaving room. The newer variety of country seems more clearly aligned with middle-class values, and it's difficult to imagine the Dixie Chicks actually putting up hay in a barn. Hard Times in the Country is a well-conceived collection and will be appreciated by old-time music lovers.

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