Jefferson Ross Addresses The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Of American South On ‘Southern Currency’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Atlanta-based folk artist Jefferson Ross breathes the South from his opening notes through his eleven penned songs, each dedicated to a state below the Mason Dixon line. And Ross teams with none other than the ever-present-these-days Thomm Jutz and Jutz’s usual session musicians. The album reads like a travelogue one plays through a car radio when visiting a National Park or historic location. Ross considers the South a collection of many cultures, accents, food traditions, and customs. So, he breaks it all down, giving us a sense of the people, the history, and the various distinctions between these states.

The musicians are essentially the same crew that played on this year’s brilliant Jutz-Tammy Rogers release Surely Will Be Singing except with Ross on guitars and lead vocals. The others are Jutz on guitars and harmony; Mike Compton on mandolin; Mark Fain on upright bass; Tammy Rogers-King on fiddle and harmony; and Lynn Williams on drums and percussion. Like that aforementioned album, this is totally acoustic, veering in a country or bluegrass direction depending on the state that the song references. It all goes down as easily as a tasty glass of iced tea.

Ross is a multi-dimensional artist: musician, songwriter, painter, and budding photographer. It’s his distinctly southern photograph of a trailer adjacent to a dilapidated barn set back from the cotton fields on the front with the classic columned southern plantation on the back. The inside jacket bears more sepia-drenched shots of native foliage and importantly, a shot of a twenty-dollar Confederate bill with this caption – “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” – Galatians 5:1

Ross begins with the gently strummed, sing-song melody for “Alabama Is A Winding Road,” lulling us in before starting with these lyrics – “four little girls in a Birmingham church …the bomb goes off.”  He proceeds to mention Governor Wallace while detailing some of its positive attributes to paint the contradictions, but mostly a condemnation of the state’s sanctified hypocrisy. The upbeat fiddle-driven “Two Kentucky Brothers” tells the tale of the two siblings during the Civil War with one wearing gray and other blue. “Baptize the Gumbo” is a single and video delivering that memorable phrase over some terrific mandolin, dobro, and National guitar. 

“Down In Macon, GA” is a dobro-driven tale of the rural life of a single woman and her creature comforts. The breezy “Turquoise and Tangerine” and his double entendre “I love my sunset life” nod to the laid-back retiree beach life of Florida. The bluegrass of ‘You Can’t Go Home Again” for North Carolina tells the tale of a man way too young going to rest forever in the mountains. The bleakly fingerpicked “Hot Springs” (for Arkansas) comes from the point of view of an inmate on death row pining for that “cold, cold woman down in Hot Springs,” yet another example of his crafty wordplay.  Ironically, it seems that “High Times in the Low Country” was written with my in-laws in mind as they left Atlanta, retiring to that very same South Carolina low country he sings about in “The summer wine and whiskey flows all the way from Kiawah and Edisto”.

“The King of Mississippi” marries blues with dobro-infused lines as Ross takes some liberties with the famous Muddy Waters song “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” name-checking Clarksdale, Yazoo City, and Tunica along the way.  “The Nashville Neon Waltz” comes at a time when we’ve just learned that Ernest Tubb Records is shuttering after 70 years at its Lower Broadway location. Here are the last phrases – “A full moon over Broadway/Shines on the lonely and lost/For the men and women caught in the rhythm/Of the Nashville Neon waltz.”

The last jangling bluegrass ode, the title track, goes out to Virginia while Ross goes out much the way he introduced this set of songs, decrying the dichotomy of the South. In this one, it’s the preacher using Biblical references to rationalize slavery to a divided congregation with some bought in and some not. It’s easy enough to see parallels to today

Beneath Ross’ melodic, singable, easy flowing songs lies lyrical depth. To an amazing degree, he’s captured not just imagery but has managed to outline over a century and a half of Southern history in just a few masterful strokes of well-chosen words. 

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