The presence of playwright Sam Shephard must have the same effect on some people that mothballs are supposed to have on moths. Eyes glaze over, backs stiffen, and a sense of being totally uncomfortable sets in. As much as North Carolina's Red Clay Ramblers have expressed enthusiasm for their collaborations with Shephard, the soundtrack recording to his play A Lie of the Mind does not display the group at their most relaxed or lively. In fact, the band has been Shephard-ized beyond question. It is all perfectly respectable music, the songwriting drawn not only from the band's usual blend of the traditional and originals, but also including some Lefty Frizzell with a tasty country piano solo from Mike Craver. Most of what the band attempts -- honky tonk, serious singer/songwriter material, cornpone rural humor -- comes across as if someone had dropped an enormous and sopping wet blanket on top of it. The instrumental medley that closes the first side is an exception; it represents the totally rousing sound of this band at their best, bringing to mind students in a campus pub discovering old-timey music for the first time. "Light Years Away" is also a beautiful ballad, effectively followed by the romping "Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase." Hovering over the old-timey music atmosphere, however, is the Shephard rain cloud. One cringes in apprehension of what kind of awkward, uncomfortable drama is wed to this music. It is an inevitable difficulty for any music group doing a soundtrack album, since the house a group may build for their current family of songs is bound to be more relaxed than the hotel room offered by a playwright using a live music group for dramatic effect. Furthermore, Shepard obviously hopes the rich dramatic content and emotion of the old-timey music or the Skip James blues will rub off on his play. It is not a transaction one should bank on, since the formality of the dramatic process strips away much of this music's intensity. In only one sense is this album a necessary addition to a collection of recordings by this group. That is the excellent little bits of incidental music, much of which gets into interesting areas that these musicians are more than capable of dealing with, but have tended to avoid on their own recordings. Recorded sound is indeed good, but a little too clean overall.
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