When people are confronted with my ridiculously voluminous music collection, they are most often struck with its distinct lack of commonality. Growing up within 70 miles of Detroit in the ’60s will do that; anything you can imagine between and beyond Motown and The Stooges will generally light my sparkler.
In reference to music specifically and to life in general, I have often remarked, “Specialization is for insects,” but if Mark Utley would like to borrow the phrase when he’s talking about his band, Cincinnati's Magnolia Mountain, he’s more than welcome.
From the band’s beginnings six years ago, Utley has endeavored to reconcile his Rock past with his fresh love of all things Americana by investing his Magnolia Mountain output with a reverence for the Bluegrass, Folk, Country and Rock forms while investing them with fresh angles, lines and perspectives. Like a sculptor who has immense respect for the permanence of the stone but also implicitly trusts his chisel and creative vision, Utley shapes the raw material of Americana’s various stylistic permutations into songs that are comfortably familiar yet blazingly original. That ethic was a hallmark of Magnolia Mountain’s last double album, 2010’s Redbird Green, and it comes into even sharper focus on the band’s third and latest release, the aptly titled Town and Country.
Part of Magnolia Mountain’s variance from album to album is at least partially due to the shifts in personnel that have affected the band from the start. At the same time, Magnolia Mountain has always been something of a rotating collective with guests becoming permanent members and members becoming guests. Town and Country follows that template, as Jordan Neff and Amber Nash (who left to devote full attention to their side project, Shiny and the Spoon) and David Rhodes Brown (who has defected from his numerous band affiliations to concentrate on solo/side work) appear sporadically on the album’s 18 tracks. And once again, guests abound on Town and Country, including piano master Ricky Nye, Tillers banjo ninja Mike Oberst and Americana chanteuse Lydia Loveless, among others.
Utley’s grounding in and love of vinyl forces him to think of his dozen and a half songs in the context of four separate sides (which he also did on Redbird Green; both albums are available in double vinyl format), and the first side is indicative of the broad range of Town and Country. “Black Mollie” kicks things off like a traditional Folk ode, “One Waking Moment” is a classic Appalachian Bluegrass break-up jaunt and “Baby Let’s Pretend” is a bopping Country thumper that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Rodney Crowell or T Bone Burnett set.
But just when you think you’ve got Magnolia Mountain pinned down, Utley and company (Jeff Vanover, Melissa English, Renee Frye, Bob Lese, Kathy Woods, Bob Donisi and Todd Drake) blister the paint with the wicked Blues menace of “Set on Fire,” with sweet “sugar, sugar” backing vocals, searing slide guitar and thundering rhythm section. That quartet is a mere hint at the broad spectrum of styles and approaches that Magnolia Mountain achieves on Town and Country, from the funky twang soul Blues of “Rainmaker” to the supercharged Roots Rock swing of “Shotgun Divorce” (Utley’s duet with Loveless) to the atmospheric swamp boogie of “The Devil We Know,” as well as superb covers of Will Johnson’s “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” and Wussy’s “Don’t Leave Just Now.”
As usual, the brilliance of Utley’s songwriting is that he and Magnolia Mountain craft each track as a separate jewel that fits perfectly into the gorgeous crown that is Town and Country.