The most satisfying Old-time sounds are the ones that hit you straight as an arrow. It’s the fervently rendered tune that transports you to another time and place,
but doesn’t allow you to forget that the players are fashioning a deep groove right here and right now. It’s the honest, uncompromised blending of voices in harmony, never watered down by flashy production or a motivation beyond breathing new life into old stories and songs.
This purity of presence is the bread and butter of straight-shooting stringband The Bucking Mules. On their new full-length album Smoke Behind the Clouds (April 2017, Free Dirt Records), the Mules treat 17 mostly traditional tracks with their characteristic throw-down groove. They traverse the traditional musical landscape of the Cumberland Plateau, the Tennessee River Valley, the Blue Ridge, and beyond, weaving together a meditation on the region.
Recorded at an old farmhouse in the rolling hills of Floyd, Virginia, Smoke Behind the Clouds was self-produced by The Mules with band member Joseph DeJarnette at the helm in the studio. Recorded live—face-to-face in one room—the album unfolds in real time; listeners can trace each spark and hear the band remap familiar ground. Smoke Behind the Clouds serves as a mission statement on the organic collaboration and creative process that The Bucking Mules hold dear in their performance of Old-time songs and tunes.
The Bucking Mules consist of some of the finest players on the Old-time scene today: Joseph Decosimo (fiddle, banjo, vocals), Karen Celia Heil (guitar, vocals), Luke Richardson (banjo, harmonica, fiddle, vocals), and Joseph “Joe Bass” DeJarnette (bass). The band cut their teeth in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, paying their dues with elder master musicians and old 78s. Dedicated to teaching the music, they are in-demand at workshops and music camps around the world. Decosimo, a folklorist, specializes in Old-time music.
The result is a group of well-studied musicians with a deep, scholarly understanding of the region’s musical traditions. Yet they distill this reverence for the past into a driving, heartfelt sound—one tailored for contemporary fans of folk, bluegrass, Americana, and more. The Bucking Mules are a backbone in the Old-time community, known for their joyous force in conveying the spirit of this music, but their powerhouse performances continue to win over audiences far beyond that niche. They know how to bust down on a fiddle tune, belt an old song, and move square dancers just as well as they know historic origins and intricacies.
On Smoke Behind the Clouds, the group is in conversation with one another, effortlessly trading fiddle, banjo, and harmonica lines like banter between old friends. After all, The Mules are a band born from sitting knee to knee at traditional music gatherings and sharing music, lives, and laughter together deep into the night. This connectedness--to one another, and from the present to past--makes Smoke Behind the Clouds an exuberant listen. Favoring joy and simplicity over pretense, The Bucking Mules remind us why this music should never be cast aside as they carve out their place in making sure that it isn’t.