CAROLINA STILL – DISTILLER
2011 – Self Released
Imagination can be a wonderful thing! Mine doesn’t need to be stretched far to imagine this superb, ramshackle sounding band at a Saturday night hoe down in the high Appalachians of god knows how many decades ago! The vocals are melodic, tuneful and very raw, whilst the playing can be gentle but is also full of fire and attitude. If ever a band were a true evocation of the oft used (by me anyway) phrase ‘punked up hillbilly’ Carolina Still must certainly be the one. That is not to say they lack discipline or musical skill, very far from it, some of their playing is quite incredible. Whilst there are very few recordings by this brilliant band they have actually been playing up to 200 gigs a year for most of the last decade, ensuring their dues are paid and those amazing skills are honed!
They are a four piece but can’t be described as a string band because of the prescence of drums in the more than capable hands of Billy Smith, who also helps out with vocals. Adam Jones is on upright bass and in conjunction with Smith lays an incredibly powerful and solid foundation for lead singer, songwriter, banjo picker and guitarist, Justin Casey, to paint his verbal pictures with the incredibly atmospheric and skilfull fiddle playing of Robert Norman. He also helps out with vocals and guitar, and gives the band what is virtually it’s signature sound with his powerfully evocative
fiddling. They are fairly obviously confident in their abilities and perfectly at home together as you would expect from a band that has been together as long as they have and having played in a huge variety of locations.
Whilst many of the songs have a slight tongue in cheek quality, at the same time there is a realistic grittiness that helps raise this album above the pack of other similarly excellent recordings,
along of course with their fiery playing, particularly Norman’s. There is an unusual element to this album with album opener Distiller and the tenth track Runnin’ Moonshine being variations on the same story, the life of a moonshiner. The former is a terrific ‘hillbilly’song about a man driven to running moonshine by sheer desperation to support his family, having formerly been a ‘distiller’.
Most songs with similar themes are humourous but this one emphasizes the lack of glamour and the price paid by his family if he gets caught. Some lovely banjo and hard driving fiddle propel the song, making it a perfect example of what is to follow. The latter song is another nicely atmospheric ‘moonshine’ running song with two vocalists exchanging verses and whilst it is much the same story, it has a slightly different slant and tempo but again is driven predominately by fiddle and banjo. Similarly Erastus Clay and Six Gun Sadie, with the former led by the haunting, keening fiddle and
repetitive acoustic guitar on a dark ‘country and western’ tale that would have been far too dark for the likes of Marty Robbins. It tells of a bad man that gets his come uppance, unsurprisingly from Six Gun Sadie! Like Clay, she eventually gets her just desserts in her very own song. A real seedy
tale of the old west with no glamour added! Black Cat In The Briar Patch is an incredible fiddle and accordion driven instrumental that has real power and impact, whilst Sandy Boys is another speedy hard driving hoe down, with excellent foundation laid by bass but with fiddle as dominant lead. A pair of brilliant instrumentals! That .44 Gun is another excellent dark, haunting ‘country and western’ song that tells the tale of a man awaiting execution for shooting the man who made a pass at his girl friend. It is medium paced and as usual has the instrumentation balance perfectly matched to the song. There are further excellent songs, all perfectly arranged, sung and played with a variety of tempos and subjects with excellent hoe downs and ballads, all played with plenty of fire and intensity and no little skill and feeling.
All in all an album that contains variations on rural old timey music, country and western, punk and alt. country attitude, perhaps a little bluegrass, even echoes of blues so is not easy to slot into a particular category other than one of excellence. Terrific album!