Shovelin Stone – Summer Honey: Album Review

Bluegrassy jam band from the mountains with a moonshiney special brew.

Release date: 19th August 2022

Label: Self-released

Format: Digital (with hard copy likely available at live shows)

There is something just so damn infectious about this style of music. Styles of music really, old-timey mountain music, blended and merged with what might just get called boogie, classic choogling jam band fodder from a band who look entirely the part, so much so you can fully imagine playing on a flatbed truck in the car park outside a Grateful Dead concert. And that maybe do. So we get a banjo, we get an acoustic guitar, each battered, and we get a rock rhythm section of bass and drums. Drawled vocals, ragged harmonies? You betcha!

The brainchild of two friends from the Colorado Rockies, Mackenzie Willox and Zak Thrall, bonding over a love of bluegrass, they bedded down in Austin, Texas, hooking up with bassist, Russick Smith and drummer, Brett Throgmorton. Clearly, it could do no harm that Smith is a more than competent mandolinist, a dab hand also on the cello. This is their second recording, and like their first and eponymous disc, from 2019, is an independent self-release. But, as a sign of intent, the producer is ace studio whizz Chance McCoy, of Old Crow Medicine Show, and so knows a fair old bit around making the mountain string band music sound contemporary and vital. He took the band to the Appalachians, away from the interference of phone and internet signals, and this is what they got!

First off the tee is the title track, as close an indelible earworm as I have heard all year. Naggingly insistent, the rhythm section plugs straight into the vibe, as Thrall picks out a banjo lick that imprints over the infectious acoustic strum of Willox’s guitar. Willox takes, as throughout, the lead vocal, a bouncy oo-oo aa-aa chorus demanding a smile. Poetry is maybe isn’t but it convinces, the words from a long pre-woke age, with no harm done whatsoever from that stance. Won’t You Tell Me carries that momentum, with a strong Allmans, post-Duane, type of swagger to it. Without an electric instrument, give or take the bass, in sight. Ain’t No Shooting Star is more of a road song, with hints of a hoarser Robert Earl Keen in the delivery. Which is a good thing. The banjo positively sings between verses,

Note To Self, which, note to self, is a great title, is summonsed in with a campfire harmonica wail from Willox. “I’ve learnt that you learn from mistakes,” and who can deny the truth of that? The mandolin gets a first solo airing and is worth the wait, and gives the additional texture of a secret weapon. Drunk When I Get There is a sober tale of reflection, the template now assured, easy-going tunes and playing, all held together by the four-to-the-floor rudder of Throgmorton’s rudimentary kit. Like most of the songs, no welcomes are overstayed, most clocking in between two and four minutes. I have to quote another line: “If the whiskey won’t kill me, at least I’ll be drunk when I get there,” which is, if nothing else, pragmatic. Love Me Too continues this rueful ambience, a what-if song that starts as solo guitar and voice, ahead the rest of the band slotting in unobtrusively, cello swooping in to uplift the wistful nuance. WingSong is then a jollier affair, rolling fat ones and making love all night, but falls a little flat between the headier songs before and after. It’s good but just not that good. Or as good.

Jesus can be a dealbreaker more for UK listeners, I feel, than in the more God-fearing US, but don’t let that put you off Here’s To Jesus, which actually has quite a pleasing anthemic feel, with a clear honesty of belief and insight. Hell, if Jesus Is Just Alright for the Byrds and the Doobies, we can accept this without a sneer. Wish Over You is back into swagger mode, more echoes of The South Will Rise Again southern rock of the 1970s. No Good At waiting is a jauntier song, the melody casting long roots into hillbilly campfire roustabouts. A short and simple song, it is charming and paves the way for the more portentous Black And White, which closes the set with heavier statements, again, I think, of belief. The cello here is magisterial and adds a whack of seriousness to the record, as showing there is more to the band than being good ol’ boys. Fighting the good fight is pretty unambiguous, but I guess you can take your interpretation as you like.

Thirty-nine minutes and a bit, start to finish, this is a sweet little nugget of an album, and one that might otherwise pass you by, so drenched it is in fashions and foibles of times gone by and places distant. Surprise yourself, check it out.

Here’s the title track:

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