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Review: Blackberry Winter – In These Ozark Hills

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 In These Ozark HillsBy Joe Ross
With four traditional tunes, five originals, and eight covers, the Missouri-based string band Blackberry Winter has produced a pleasant album chock full of downhome flavor and personality. These self-professed "old hillbillies" have long resumes with folk, big band, swing, rockabilly and even funk music. Common interests in music, friendship and camaraderie bring the folks together from many walks of life. Blackberry Winter's seven eclectic members have also pursued careers in journalism, broadcasting, photography, nature study, music teaching, massage therapy, realty and home remodeling. The band originally formed when singer/storyteller Marideth Sisco pulled them together to play soundtrack music for "Winter's Bone," an award-winning, thrilling melodrama set in the Missouri Ozarks. The rest of the affable group is Dennis Crider (guitar), Bo Brown (guitar, mandolin, Dobro), Van Colbert (clawhammer banjo), Linda Stoffel (vocals, washboard), Tedi May (bass), and Billy Ward (fiddle). The album's liner notes don't credit the male singers, but one would presume that it's Bo Brown singing his own self-penned "Small Town."

As an original tribute to their home, the album opens with Sisco's passionate statement about the "rich, deep current of life always running through these Ozarks Hills." The songs with spare instrumental settings are especially effective for the nostalgic and evocative sentiments. "Cold Rain and Snow" brings chills with its rustic accompaniment of only banjo and fiddle. Tom Waits' "House Where Nobody Lives" and Hedy West/Don West's "Anger in the Land" and Hazel Dickens' "Fly Away Little Pretty Bird" are also sparsely arranged to impart old-timey front porch intensity that is remarkably powerful storytelling. The project also taps the repertoires of such luminaries as Dave Macon, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Natalie Merchant, Kate Long, and Bill Carlisle. I've heard several bands cover "Who Will Watch the Home Place," and that kind of song seems a perfect fit for this band's ethos and approach...as do "Gone Home" and "The Water is Wide."

Blackberry Winter is a successful regional band, and they recently completed a 27-city "Amazing Geriatric Hillbilly U.S. World Tour" to promote the Winter's Bone soundtrack. It's nice to see them keeping the ensemble together, as well as pursuing a variety of string band styles. While large-scale commercial success may elude them, I'm sure they have a solid fan base in Old Mizzoo. "Use It Up" might even have a biographical thread – "no need to strive for riches, you can patch it up with kisses, it ain't old, it ain't old, it ain't old, it's just seen a lot of life." Sung from the heart, their music helps us lay down heavy burdens and weary bodies. A swingy song like "City Kicks" might best capture their prevalent message – "I'm going to throw away all my bills, when I get to those Ozark Hills, and trade these old hard times for an easy chair. And I ain't gonna need no liquor, gonna hang with them guitar pickers, gonna play away my blues when I get down there." Sung from the heart, their music helps us lay down heavy burdens and weary bodies. A swingy song like

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