The music of C. B. Smith and the Lucky Devils rather perfectly illustrates a point I have been trying to make about the contemporary roots genre for a while now. How convenient. Smith’s new album Bluebird serves up ten classicist folk, bluegrass and rural blues originals that aspire to be songs that you already knew but didn’t know you knew until you heard them. That’s how John Hiatt described how he knows when he has written a potentially successful song: It’s half-familiar and coming from a time in your life that you can’t quite place. It’s new, but it was already always there.
In a genre prone to retrofundamentalism and affectations of Old World authenticity, C. B Smith and company don’t go over the top with the stylings and the wardrobe. As a writer and singer, Smith is interested in both the timelessness of folk and its relevance as a newsy medium. Several songs here (“When the Waters Rise” and “Oil Trains”) are cautionary environmentalist ballads. Others, such as the delightful “Calamity Jane,” deal adeptly in American Myth.
Still another facet of Smith’s writing tends toward the literate/confessional. The album opening title track finds an analogue in the animal world for the persona’s surprisingly unsettled and undirected life. “Silver & Gold” celebrates late-life companionship. “The Highway” is a classic rambling-man road song – one that quotes at length the Rolling Stone’s “No Expectations.”
Bluebird is essentially a live-in-the-studio record from a lithe, lyrical and capable bunch of string players: Smith on guitar and mandolin, Megan Gugliotta providing fills and filigree on violin and cello and Bill Strohm as the one-man rhythm section on upright bass. All three sing, with Smith’s muscular and quavering voice huge and privileged in the mixes.
Much to its credit, Bluebird is soft-sell with its roots authenticity. Smith is more interested in good songcraft and universal emotion than in fashionable antiquing and the artifacts of the old weird America. His definition of folk authenticity makes ample room for contemporary relevance and modern life.
C.B. Smith and the Lucky Devils celebrate the release of Bluebird on Saturday, January 24 at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock.
C.B. Smith & the Lucky Devils, Saturday, January 24, 8 p.m., $15/$10, Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock.