The Ebony Hillbillies – 5 Miles from Town
CD: 12 Songs, 41:00 Minutes
Styles: String/Violin Blues, Country Blues, Traditional Songs with New Arrangements
5 Miles from Town, by NYC’s Ebony Hillbillies, takes off like a bullet train and doesn’t let up. It grabs listeners’ attention and bolts away, leading them on a journey through what I’d like to call our “postmodern past.” Several of the album’s twelve tracks are traditional tunes newly arranged by the band, such as “Hog Eyed Man,” “I’d Rather Be a [N] Than a Po’ White Man,” and “Where He Leads Me (I Will Follow).” These songs shine the brightest, played with an authenticity that will make one swear they were recorded long before 2019. Unfortunately, there are a couple head-scratchers, with Exhibit A being “ZYX” on the tail end of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (popularized by Bonnie Raitt). Their two political offerings, “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “Oh What a Time,” pack a distinct 21st-century punch. Older fans will like covers of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Carroll County Blues.”
The Ebony Hillbillies started out on the streets of Manhattan, but their vibe and influence have extended over the years to acclaimed live performances at legendary venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, appearances on the BBC, Good Morning America, NBC, and CBS. They have also extended their efforts to EHU – Ebony Hillbillies 4 Kids, a blues program in schools. From the LA Times to the New Yorker, the band has made their mark. Noted critics sing their praises instead of going “Eh…” The Hillbillies bring the past into the present, which inevitably becomes the future. That’s their trademark, their signature, focusing on the legacy and message of their music as well as the mechanics of it. When we hear them, all of us will remember our roots.
The band consists of Henrique Prince on violin and vocals; Norris Washington Bennett on banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar and vocals; Gloria Thomas Gassaway on bones (percussion) and vocals; William (Salty Bill) Salter on acoustic bass; Allanah Salter on shaker and vocals; Newman Taylor Baker on washboard percussion, and Ali (A.R.) Rahman on cowboy percussion. [That’s what it says on their website; it isn’t a typo. I’m curious what cowboy percussion is.]
The first song is the best one on 5 Miles from Town, with the energy and speed of a Maglev.
Track 01: “Hog Eyed Man” – This instrumental contains fiddle that would put Charlie Daniels’ Johnny and the Devil both to shame. Light as a feather yet searing as flame, it hooks you fast and hard. Perfect for line dancing, square dancing, or whatever one calls dancing, “Hog Eyed Man” will be a surefire hit in barrooms and clubs everywhere. The Hillbillies impress and then some. Its only flaw is that it’s too short, clocking in at a scant 2:36. A longer remix is in order, with the various band members taking turns “walking the dog.”
5 Miles from Town is avant-garde and awesome, but those who don’t like that first term won’t find it their cup of tea. On balance, this is a mixed bag, but it offers something for baby boomers down to Gen Z.