Eric Brace and Peter Cooper have a history of creating carefully crafted concept album. With guitarist Thomm Jutz again aboard, the acoustic triumvirate are on a roll. "C & O Canal" was terrific. "Riverland" may be even a little better. The lineup is a little larger too. Mark Fain (upright bass), Lyn Williams (drums), Mike Compton (mandolin) and Tammy Rogers (fiddle) join as well as banjoists Terry Baucom and Justin Moses on two tracks each.
The subject is not only the Mississippi River, but the state, too. Cooper and Brace are musicologists steeped in the history of rural music, folk music, and just about anything that qualifies as "roots." Jutz is an amazing acoustic guitarist and composer (credited on 11 of 14). So, even though none of the three grew up in Mississippi, count on their research. More importantly, they are fascinated by the place and it comes across.
There are 13 originals and one intriguing cover, penned by bootleg preacher Rev. Will D. Campbell, who spent his life working for equality and racial justice. He befriended poets, prophets and pugilists including Tom T. Hall, Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. His mostly spoken word tune, "Mississippi Magic" is the fulcrum around which the album revolves.
In their signature style, the trio regales with terrific stories, some based on history and others just plain fiction. The Great Flood of 1927 is addressed in "Drowned and Washed Away." The twilight years of legendary keelboat man Mike Fink are lamented in "King of the Keelboat Men" with its polar opposite "To Be a Steamboat Man" that comes later. The adventures of a traveling mule ("Southern Mule") and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's plan to change the world by taking Vicksburg, Miss. ("Down Along the River") are among the many highlights. Still, it's best to listen in sequence as the closing tune, penned by Lutz and Rogers, "Mississippi, Rest My Soul" is the perfect southern gospel hymn.
For the background on the songs as well as the lyrics, look no further than the detailed booklet accompanying the CD and read along while listening. Brace, Cooper, and Jutz are simply among the best storytellers we have.