Hot Buttered Rum String Band: In These Parts

In 1985, pop musician Dan Fogelberg, after an inspirational visit to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, released High Country Snows, a collection of original bluegrass tunes seasoned with Carter Stanley, Flatt and Scruggs. Despite featuring top of the line players such as David Grisman, Herb Pedersen, and Jerry Douglas, the record failed to convey the raw emotional core that powers so much of traditional and bluegrass music.

In 1999, the members of the Hot Buttered Rum String Band visited the High Sierra Music Festival, and returned home with the inspiration for what they called “High Altitude California Bluegrass.” For their second CD release, HBRSB hired veteran engineer/producer “Decibel” Dave Dennison, the man behind so many of David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc releases. Despite this acknowledged master at the controls, In These Parts fails to capture the emotional center that Fogelberg missed twenty years earlier.

It’s not an unpleasant record by any means. Starting with the opener, Nat Keefe’s “Three Point Two,” a cheerful ditty about beer that might also serve as a Coors advertising jingle, the record moves on to the lightly overdone “Flask, Alas,” a tune that moves well live but isn’t quite as successful in the studio. Mandolinist Zachary Matthews contributes “Evolution,” a paean to mountaineering that relies on a redundant mando riff that is unfortunately reinforced by what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have called a “penny-dreadful” whistle.

HBRSB’s cover of the Monroe classic, “Old Dangerfield” is an interesting take on the subject and highlights the technical skills the band can bring to a tune. Bill Monroe might have disapproved of Hot Buttered Rum’s choice of instruments, but even he would have applauded the quality of the mandolins used here. The record then takes a pop-flavored turn with Aaron Redner’s “I’ve Let Go,” the sort of written-for-a-former-lover tune that can transform that lover into a vengeful stalker (memo to Aaron – NEVER get over her first!). “Lighten Up Your Load” returns to the acoustic side of things with clever rhythmic construction and lyrics. This advice might have been better directed to Zach Matthews, whose “Horseshoe” contains enough lyrical cause for depression to fuel a run on Prozac.

I guess, in an election year, I shouldn’t be surprised at political content in recordings, and yet Nat Keefe’s “Reckless Tex,” is a surprise. The predictable anti-Bush tirade recycles weary rants but places those cliches against an unpredictably fine little melody and arrangement. Maybe with an alternative choice of subject this could’ve had some airplay. But if “Reckless Tex” has you feeling excited and ready for a brand new day, calm down. Again, Zach Matthews contributes a tune with Prozac sales potential. “Immaculate Rain” has well-knit playing, but breathy vocals fail to balance the clinical depression of the lyrics. The CD closes with the title tune, In These Parts, another Nat Keefe composition that tries to use bluegrass imagery to tell us how HBRSB has grown into a bluegrass unit.

The Hot Buttered Rum String Band has made a CD I’m sure they feel proud to release, and in many ways I agree that In These Parts is a solid work. But the technical skills and instrumental variety the guys bring to their music cannot compensate for the antiseptic quality of the tunes, nor for the distance the band maintains between itself and its subjects. In the title track’s lyrics, Nat Keefe claims, “Now I know the way the down home people play.”

Well, actually, guys, not yet you don’t.

Related Content

Recent Posts

New to Glide

Keep up-to-date with Glide