Eric Brace, Peter Cooper, and Thomm Jutz
Red Beet Records
I’ve seen the Mississippi only once. One Christmas season, the year Kristy MacColl passed, we found ourselves in New Orleans for a couple days straddling an ill-fated Caribbean cruise with the in-laws.
The weather for most of the cruise was unpleasant, but the couple, three days we spent in New Orleans were quite amazing. It snowed the final day we were there—might have been New Year’s Eve—but I recall standing on the river bank above—the levee, I suppose—drinking strong, bitter coffee and being in wonder of the sheer magnitude of the muddy water. It moved like a living beast, slow and seemingly languid, but each time a piece of detritus momentarily appeared I was made aware of its never-ending force.
I’ve read about the Mississippi and its environs—Greg Iles and the like—and listened to more than a few John Hartford albums, but I suppose to truly understand the Mississippi and its extended culture, you have to be born to it, or at least be adopted by it.
Unless you’re Thomm Jutz, Eric Brace, and Peter Cooper. Then, you can just imagine it. And damn it, if they aren’t talented enough to pull it off.
How long have I been listening to Eric Brace and Peter Cooper? Long enough to know that they do nothing in half-measures.
Talented writers, songwriters, musicians, vocalists, and producers, they always deliver. Having developed tributes to the likes of Eric Taylor (Cooper) and Tom T. Hall, as well as the Washington, D.C. bluegrass scene, Lloyd Green (Cooper), 20th Century French music (Brace) and the California Gold Rush (Brace). Why not turn their focus to the mighty Mississippi? A few years back they teamed up with Jutz for an album, and Cooper and Jutz sat at the feet of Mac Wiseman, creating a set of songs complementing his bluegrass and country journey. It appears the duo is now a trio.
Riverland is a sparkling and troubling creation. Built in large part around remembrances of Will D. Campbell, a reverend and unrepentant moonshiner, via his composition “Mississippi Magic,” and sung here by Cooper, the trio capture the competing forces that historians and novelists, scholars and poets have been examining for a couple hundred years.
Some of Campbell’s ‘crazy ideas’ seem to have inspired the songwriters. Within “In the Presence of the River,” the singers—in turn—examine the inspirational qualities of the ever-changing waterway, “it makes me weep, it makes me wonder,” they sing in its refrain. They pair Campbell with their favourite songwriter in “Tom T. and Brother Will,” exploring philosophy and ‘shine, Scripture and the Delta bottomland.
Mike Fink (“King of the Keelboat Men”) and Hartford (“To Be A Steamboat Man”) receive companionable nods, as do William Faulkner and Shelby Foote (“As Far As I Can See,” and Faulkner in even greater depth via “It Might Be Hollywood”) and admittedly all I know about either writer is learned from these gentle, lyrically-precise songs.
Another side of the Mississippi—the devastation of war (“Down Along the River”) and the seemingly eternal troika of flood, segregation, and poverty (“Drowned and Washed Away”)—are examined in the trio’s modern Americana-folk manner. For fellows I imagine never having worked at the south end of a north bound mule, they bring their anamorphic power to “Southern Mule,” capturing slices of history in the appealing telling of a tired animal who still has “a hell of a kick.”
Joined by master class bluegrass musicians—Mark Fain (bass), Mike Compton (mandolin), and Tammy Rogers (fiddle)—on a distinctively non-bluegrass album adds an edge of acoustic sheen masterfully applied. Terry Baucom and Justin Moses each contribute restrained, atmospheric banjo in a couple places. Lynn Williams is the drummer, while Brace, Jutz, and Cooper offer acoustic leads and rhythm, with Jutz also being featured on resonator.
“Uneasy Does It,” a recognition of a father’s need to be home via Jerry Lee references, previously appeared on the trio’s 2017 album, Profiles in Courage, Frailty, and Discomfort, while Riverland’s coda “Mississippi, Rest My Soul,” a Jutz-Rogers co-write, captures anything the bulk of the album may have missed: the continuous, uneasy passage of time that—perhaps—mirrors the river’s own journey, always moving, always changing.
Riverland comes in at nearly an hour, and it never drags. The listener is held rapt by both the songwriting and performance.
Three friends. Fourteen tracks. Miles upon miles of stories and songs. They’ve done it again.