The third full length studio album from Indiana’s bluegrass practitioners Blue Mafia, Hanging Tree, features a dozen songs speaking to heart of a particularly American experience. Bluegrass is, likely, something only Americans can truly understand as an art form. Despite the form’s European/African roots, bluegrass speaks directly to American experience in much the same way as jazz, but from a different perspective. Bluegrass touches on America’s rural roots without belaboring them and gives them a distinct melodic and rhythmic spin that you don’t hear in country or blues music. Blue Mafia has carved themselves out a place in this tradition because they show proper deference to the form and, more importantly, are able to wrest individuality from its tropes and clichés. Much on their third album invokes tradition; much on Hanging Tree, alternatively, speaks to the band’s own identity and experiences.
The interplay between fiddle and banjo is key to the opener “Like a Mining Man”, but the vocals assume greater importance as the song progresses. Blue Mafia has a nearly perfect vocal blend and accentuates the country roots of material like this without ever overplaying their hand. The song is a little reminiscent of The Stanley Brothers’ early material thanks to the hard-bitten fatalism driving the lyric. The title track weaves multiple acoustic guitar threads together with an evocative touch. Dara Wray’s voice leads the way with discreet backing vocals joining her. This is obviously culled from traditional material, but Blue Mafia makes it their own with their patience, attention to detail, and Wray’s considerable vocal skills embodying the lyric quite well.
The first of her original compositions on the album, “The Man You Know”, hinges in part on its vocal harmonies and begins with acapella lines. The gentle introduction of instruments to the song creates a mood that lasts for the song’s entirety. Wray’s lyric is tenderly remonstrative, calling out poseurs who pretend to be righteous, and the fiddle lines between each verse strike a nice contrast with her voice. “With Body and Soul” is a traditional song that the band attacks with great skill and there’s a truly joyful quality in the performance that makes it an exuberant listen. “Midnight Rain” relies on the band’s trademark vocal harmonies, but it has a jaunty appeal that might find some footing outside of traditional bluegrass circles. This is more akin to top shelf singer/songwriter pop that never sacrifices a second of its gravitas in favor of pandering. “You Belong With Me” is an uptempo banjo and fiddle duet written by Dara Wray following of longing and regret for a long time relationship falling apart. The album’s penultimate tune “Life” is Dara Wray’s final song and has the sort of maturity and clarity that listeners will expect from Blue Mafia at this point in the musical narrative. The reflective nature of the song is quite appealing and filled with enough specific details to make the performance quite memorable. Hanging Tree ends with “Who Are You”, written by fan and friend of the band Kevin Hayes, and it’s a wonderful choice for this spot. It unfolds slowly, carried largely by the fiddle playing, and has a graceful arrangement that never strains the listener’s patience with too much preciousness. This is as finely crafted of a release as you’ll hear in 2017 and adds much to the band’s growing reputation.
9 out of 10 stars