Magnolia in Bloom

Magnolia Mountain goes lo-tech and high class on ambitious new album, 'Redbird Green'

Jun 15, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Gather round, kids. Pappy wants to tell you how it was in the old days.

Way back then, we used to get our music on big black dinner plates that we put on a revolving platter and played using an arm with a diamond needle at the end, which would run along in a groove and make the music come out of the dinner plate. Then you’d have to get up and turn over the plate to hear the other side. Hey, don’t look at me like that.

Your music comes flying through wires willy-nilly and is made of ones and zeros, and if your computer machine crashes you don’t have a single solitary note of music left. Your way doesn’t make any more sense than ours.

The point is that local Americana/Roots outfit Magnolia Mountain remembers the old days and wanted to connect with them in some significant way, so they’re releasing their new ambitiously sized CD, Redbird Green, in a double-album vinyl format. It was clearly a structure Magnolia frontman Mark Utley was working toward — the titles on the back of the CD are separated into four distinct sides.

“I’m a vinyl freak and I wanted to do the first record on vinyl but we didn’t have enough money,” Utley says from the living room of his Price Hill home. “Sitting down with one CD for an hour can be a little exhausting, but the good thing about the record is its broken into logical sections. You can listen to three or four songs at a time and they fit together with themselves as well as they fit as a piece with the whole thing.”

And while the Magnolias are going old-school technology on the vinyl release of Redbird Green, the band’s methodology to raise the funds to finance the pressing and printing of the album was on the cutting edge of Web networking. Utley posted the album on, a new fundraising site for musicians, artists, inventors or anyone looking to get a project bankrolled.

Slideshow from the Redbird Green CD Release Show

“We put it up as a project we were working on and asked for donations,” Utley explains. “We had a goal of $3,500 initially, but when all was said and done, we had gotten almost $6,000 in donations. We were just trying to get enough to make a double album, nothing fancy, just a thick sleeve that both records would fit in, but now it’s turned into a gatefold, with a nice Michael Wilson photo of us across the inside (pictured above), full color everything.”

Ambitious is the word for Magnolia Mountain all the way around. The band — Utley on vocals, guitar and banjo, guitarist Jordan Neff, vocalist Melissa English, Bob Lese on mandolin and harmonica, upright bassist Bob Donisi, drummer Matt Frazer — released its debut album, Nothing As It Was, last February to fairly universal acclaim and in the interim lost a member (steel guitarist Rockne Riddlebarger) and added others (vocalist Amber Nash, Neff’s partner from Shiny and the Spoon, and local guitar legend David Rhodes Brown).

Most bands would require a period of adjustment to sort that all out, but Utley had different plans for Magnolia Mountain. The first order of business was to keep writing.

“When we did the CD release show for the first one, we did an extra five songs at the end of the show, which turned out to be five of the songs on this record,” Utley says. “We just kind of kept rolling. If there was any problem at all, it was knowing when to stop. What do we not put on this record?”

The Magnolias debated the wisdom of including so much material on the album, but eventually they decided to release the CD with 17 tracks at just over 70 minutes. It was clearly the right move; Redbird Green, once again produced by John Curley at Ultrasuede, plays with the breezy pace of a single album.

“There were a lot of discussions about that; I wrote the lion’s share of (the songs) so they’re all kind of like my babies, I don’t want to get rid of any of them,” Utley says with a laugh. “But I also don’t want to be the guy who can’t edit himself, so I was always asking, ‘What should we take off? What should we leave?’ At one point we had the lucky 13, and of the lucky 13 we chose 17.”

“Reality demanded that we stop,” English says.

Much of the album’s appeal lies in the fact that Magnolia Mountain is adept at so many different styles under the Americana umbrella: the straight up Country of “Emma Claire” and “Savannah,” the rousing Rockabilly of “Hellbound Train,” the Gospel-drenched “I Do Believe,” the Cajun spice of “Ma Belle Marie.” It’s a testament to Utley’s creative vision and the amazing execution of the Magnolias that the genre mash-up on Redbird Green doesn’t sound choppy.

“I think the band had gelled more and I know this all sounds like an after-game sports interview, where they say, ‘I just want to help the team,’ but it was a more cohesive unit,” Utley says. “Everybody molded better.”

“With the first one, we had a lot of the arrangements pretty well established,” Neff says. “Whereas with this one, a lot of that stuff was written in the studio.”

As on the first album, studio guests helped expand the Magnolias’ sound on Redbird Green, including The Tillers’ Mike Oberst, Lagniappe’s Jessie Berne, The Kentucky Struts’ Adam Pleiman, the Joneses’ Rashon Murph and The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars’ Ed Cunningham. Utley’s hoping to get most, if not all, of the album’s featured players to drop by for the album release party at the Southgate House on Saturday.

Typically, there’s very little downtime in Magnolia Mountain’s world. Utley is putting together a benefit album to raise funds to halt the mountaintop removal method of mining. So far, Glossary, The Hiders, Ed Cunningham, Katie Laur and Ma Crow have all signed up and more are expected by summer’s end. Neff and Nash will work in some Shiny and the Spoon work, and Rhodes will be splitting his time between 500 Miles to Memphis, Magnolia Mountain and a variety of other projects.

“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” Brown says.

That might just be the Magnolia Mountain mantra.