The Hager’s Mountain Boys
A Better Way
Based in Roxboro, NC, The Hager’s Mountain Boys are a fun-loving and relatively heralded quartet producing bluegrass music in a manner that brings to mind the sounds perfected by groups such as the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Rock County, and J.D. Crowe’s New South over the past few decades. That is, the band has no difficulty laying down forceful bluegrass drive on a tune while next comfortably slipping into a very clearly articulated, harmony-laden song; all the while, bluegrass and country traditions and influences are balanced.
The Hager’s Mountain Boys are Ricky Stroud (mandolin), Blake Johnson (upright bass), Cliff Smith (banjo), and Cliff Waddell (guitar). A Better Way is their second album.
Johnson confidently and capably handles the majority of the lead vocals. His phrasing is undoubtedly effective, and he is able to deliver both up-tempo (“A Better Way”) and reflective (“A Granny’s Love”) material. Most impressive may be Johnson’s performance of the often recorded “He Died A Rounder at 21” on which he displays his lower register mastery.
The elder statesman of the group, Stroud’s mandolin playing is both riveting and supportive. In places, as on “New Memories,” one may not immediately notice Stroud’s instrumental contribution; however, it is always there as part of the impressive ensemble. Elsewhere, as on the aforementioned “He Died A Rounder at 21,” Stroud uses his 1986 Jennings Chestnut to ideally complement Waddell’s picking, taking and maintaining the lead midway through the song. It is a nicely executed arrangement.
Collectively, The Hager’s Mountain Boys present strong lead singing, tight harmonies, and well-executed instrumentation. Mixed among the familiar songs, including “Tennessee Blues” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” are several refreshing covers including Kevin Welch’s “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young,” Merle Haggard’s “Red Bandana,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Home From the Forest.”
Fully half of the album is strong, original material including Johnson’s insightful lament “The Bottle” and Stroud’s “New Memories,” a tune that may have relevance to many.
Generously timed, A Better Way is an engaging recording. As our world becomes electronically smaller, the definition of a regional bluegrass band is becoming less precise. Sounds produced in a relatively unheralded Chapel Hill studio are available at the touch of a few keyboard buttons.
For a band such as the Hager’s Mountain Boys, this is a boon. While they continue to play area churches, schools, and festivals, their recorded music reveals that they are capable of holding their own with bands of greater repute. Give A Better Way a listen, and see if you don’t agree.