The Back Porch Majority

Riverboat Days

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Riverboat Days holds up the best of the half-dozen albums by the Back Porch Majority. A concept album built around songs associated with the riverboats of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was an outgrowth of a project begun by the group's founder/manager, Randy Sparks, who brought the group and a camera crew aboard The Delta Queen, the last regularly operating commercial passenger steamboat working the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers, for four days. Whether it was the immersion in the genuine ambience of the subject or just the group's sympathetic approach to the material, the result was a bracing, exciting, often achingly gorgeous album. From the opening, "This Ol' Riverboat," through the gentle ballad "Banks of the Tennessee," to the rollicking "Down the Ohio," the tragedy recalled in "The Great Sultana," and the historical panorama of "Kentucky Lullaby," the variety of material and the moods evoked makes this one of the most rewarding albums to come out of the commercial side of the folk revival. And for all of the smoothness of the singing, Riverboat Days could easily have passed muster (albeit begrudgingly) with the folk purists of the early '60s -- it might be commercial, but there's an honesty, and an obvious resonance to the songs by the performers, that combine to transcend the album's commercial origins. Indeed, this recording succeeds on levels that not every album by the New Christy Minstrels -- the outfit to which members of the Back Porch Majority were supposed to "graduate" -- managed to achieve. "Kentucky Lullaby" may be the best single song (and certainly the best ballad) ever to come out of Randy Sparks' musical orbit, and lots of folk-based performers during the era would have given anything to make a record like that. Interestingly, for all of the good material across both sides of the LP, the group saves the most unexpected for last: "Were You There" embodies the concept behind the album, a song and a history lesson all in one that manages to be fun, memorable, tuneful, and educational. It may all seem a little, well, "square" four decades on as a concept, but there's no arguing with the excellence of the singing, the playing, or the sensibilities at work in almost all of the material at hand, and if any of the Back Porch Majority's albums ever gets considered for reissue on CD, this one should be first on the list.

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