MUSIC FROM THE COUNTRY The Mallett Brothers Band.
Not only was Doc Watson the best guitarist of his era, but he also expanded the horizons of so many players, in a way that belied his ultra-traditional Deep Gap, North Carolina, upbringing. He liked to refer to his repertoire as "traditional plus," as in: traditional music of the Blue Ridge Mountains, plus influences from just about every player he ever came across.
If you're looking for something to label the Mallett Brothers Band, I'd personally go with "traditional plus." Especially on their second album, Low Down, the Malletts have found a way to build a foundation with traditional instruments and songwriting, and have erected a relatively contemporary home by bringing in roots-rock, country, jam, and loads of other influences that make for an album that is both absolutely of this time and place, as well as all kinds of old time.
It's hard to pin down, but there's a feeling here that wasn't present on their debut record, like they've fully inhabited the music now, where before they weren't completely comfortable in their "country" duds (more than one of them had previous gigs in hip-hop bands, after all).
You hear it right off the bat, with the opening, and excellent, "Low Down," a roots-rock anthem that's easy to embrace (so good, actually, that I would have put it later in the album; the other songs have a hard time living up to it). Despite some wash in the beginning, where the mix of instruments doesn't have quite enough clarity, the song cuts to the quick almost immediately. Luke Mallett's lead vocal is the voice of the everyman, full of real passion and a mix of discontent and wonder. "You're never gonna be happy, in this simple kind of life/Can't live on the low down," he sings to the girl who, inevitably, has gone away. "Wanna live in the city/Want to taste the dreams/Wanna live in a big house/Wanna live with means."
What's great is that it's not entirely clear who wants these things, in the end, or which parts. It's the push and pull of the excitement of the big city and the comfort of the country home. Sometimes you've got to leave the nest to get what you want, but it's hard to clear your head of the open fields, the fresh food, the warmth of a woodstove.
These are hard times, and the Malletts both know it and aren't going to be held down by it.
"Born Cryin'" is an ultra-quick bluegrass nod with Nate Soule playing the role of fiddle-player with his electric guitar, warning that "the love you've been looking for won't be found 'round here." "Broke 'n' Driftin'" is more bluesy, with a repeating acoustic guitar run and a phased-out electric guitar from Wally Wenzel charging through the low end. Its message? "There ain't nobody gonna wanna help me now."
That sounds a lot like Doc Watson's famous line: "Ain't nobody in the whole world gonna help you carry that load."
But defiance reigns in the end. "Don't Let the Bastards Get You Down," they implore, with lots of Wenzel dobro and a whispery, closely mic'd vocal from Will Mallett, who's joined by Luke in the chorus for what's probably their best vocal pairing.