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The Midwestern Thing

Cincinnati’s finest Americana ensemble, Magnolia Mountain, releases 'Town and Country'

By Mike Breen · April 17th, 2012 · Music
music_magnoliamountain_michaelwilsonMagnolia Mountain - Photo by Michael Wilson
Thanks at least partially to our proximity to Appalachia, Greater Cincinnati has long had one of the finest Roots/Americana music scenes in the region. And the finest band from that impressive batch of artists right now is Magnolia Mountain, the band formed by Rock veteran and singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Mark Utley about five years ago. 

On each successive album, Magnolia Mountain has showcased a style that touches on numerous genres in the “Roots” field, primarily Country, Folk and Bluegrass. The mastery MM has shown throughout albums like 2010’s Redbird Green proved that Utley was no musical tourist (or “just trying on a suit,” as he says). Utley seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the roots of Roots music, but what sets him apart from the herd is his distinct, transcendent songwriting abilities. 

Those abilities are showcased better than ever on Magnolia Mountain’s new full-length, Town and Country, which adds a touch more “Rock” spice to the recipe. Songs like “The Devil We Know” and “Don’t Leave Just Now” are some of the most melodically memorable in Utley’s discography, and Town and Country — which does have purer Country-esque moments like the banjo-driven “All My Numbered Days” — has the deep, moody feel of an especially eclectic Daniel Lanois-produced album (think Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball or Dylan’s Time Out of Mind). Rounded out by some fantastic playing and singing from his always-solid (if somewhat rotating) bandmates, you will be hard pressed to find a better Americana album in 2012 than Town and Country. Even if it really is much more than simply an “Americana album.”

Utley recently took time out from prepping for Friday’s album release show at the new Ballroom at the Taft Theatre to field some questions about MM’s past, present and future. (Read the full interview at citybeat.com.)

CityBeat: Tell me about the new album. What was your mindset going into it? Did it end up as you planned?

Mark Utley: I think the goal with all the Magnolia Mountain records has been to document where we were as a band and where I was as a songwriter at those specific times.

The two years since we released Redbird Green have been a real rollercoaster ride for me personally — really high highs and very low lows — and I think that shows up in the songs. I tend to write fairly literally. It was a difficult record to make but it feels great to have made it. They’re the best songs I’ve ever written and it’s the best record we’ve made yet. 

CB: What’s the significance of calling the album “Town and Country”?

MU: It’s a nod to that dichotomy, the rockier stuff set right alongside the folkier songs. It’s interesting to me because the original template for this band was something along the lines of Neil Young’s Live Rust record, where we would start out a show almost whisper-soft with folky acoustic stuff and by the end of the night we’d be playing riff-heavy Rock songs on electric guitars. But the earlier MM lineups didn’t have all of that in them. This lineup does, and I love it.

CB: You mentioned to me previously that you had at least a twinge of concern that perhaps Town and Country was almost too varied. 

MU: I don’t think I was afraid it would be too varied, but I did (and do) have concerns that the record might alienate some earlier fans by incorporating too many different styles and sounds.  

Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers made a name for himself and his band by exploring “The Southern Thing,” meaning all the contradictions and the dynamic of growing up in the modern South and how other people see that and how you see yourself. Well, it hit me a while ago that so much of the music that gets termed “Americana” or “alt.country” or whatever, is kind of “The Midwestern Thing.” 

I mean, think about it — I grew up in southern Indiana and I’ve lived here in southern Ohio for over 20 years.  We’re on the border of North and South, our ears hear a mixture of Rock and Pop and Country and R&B every day growing up. We hear phrases like “world’s biggest small town” tossed out as compliments and as urban as we try to be sometimes, our backgrounds are often very blue-collar, very working-man, very rural, even. I think Magnolia Mountain is very much about all that and I couldn’t be prouder of it.

CB: Tell me a bit about who you’re playing with now.

MU: We’re still at eight (members), where we’ve been for a long time, but there are four new faces joining four original members in the Town and Country lineup: Renee Frye on vocals, Jeff Vanover on guitar, Todd Drake on drums and Kathy Woods on fiddle, joining me, vocalist Melissa English, bassist Bob Donisi and Bob Lese on mandolin and harmonica. All four of the new folks came in at roughly the same time and, fortuitously enough, right at the beginning of the Town and Country recording sessions, so they all had the opportunity to put their stamp on the record, and boy, did they ever.  

CB: What do you make of the (for lack of a better word) “trend” of a lot of musicians who would have fronted Punk Rock or Metal bands 10 years ago turning instead to Folk and Roots music these days?

MU: Well, they say that religion is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but perhaps it’s really Country music. I don’t know, really, other than the fact that people can sense the authenticity of some of this music and perhaps they want to discover it more deeply or co-opt it to their own ends, or try it on like a new suit of clothes. Whatever it is, and however the trends cycle in and out, I think people can tell who plays these kinds of music because it’s part of them and who’s just trying on the suit.  ©


MAGNOLIA MOUNTAIN’s album release show is Friday at the Ballroom at the Taft Theatre.


 
 
 
 

 

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