5 out of 5 Stars
River Ghost Revue are real. There is no pretension. No shtick. They don’t show up dressed in costume like they’re living in the dust bowl. They don’t need a “Look” to draw a crowd and be part of some scene drowned in the pointless nostalgia of a time long dead and thankfully gone.
They don’t play pretend like so many other bands these day that perform bluegrass and Americana music. They don’t need to act. They are from the places, and they have lived the lives other “acts” create fantasies of. And, in their latest release Paint the Sky Blue that authenticity shines like the sun off the hood of a 57′ Chevy.
Full disclosure, I have known the Watson brothers of Kahoka, MO, that lead River Ghost Revue, for over a decade. Played too many shows to count and drank enough whiskey to get a nod from Hank Jr. I’ve also been friendly with Nic and Andy as well. Because of that I had mild trepidation as I sat for a first listen. One minute into the opener Raise Your Sails all nervousness was gone as my family room was awash in Tom Petty Wildflowers-esque strumming and singing from frontman Robert Watson.
Track two, Broken Avenue, sounds perfect for this EP, but also like it would fit perfectly in their more bluegrass rookie release A Land of Deepest Shade from 2015. It flows perfectly into Blood Harmony, the kind of song that will kick you right in the gut. It opens steeped in a simple sadness, melancholy guitars strummed just beneath the opening couplet “Standing along the side of the road/Horizon calls out my name.” You’ll feel every second of the over five minutes this winds and comes back to a perfect chorus. Imagine if someone with a high, lonesome, and sweet voice sang an outtake from Springsteen’s Nebraska with more feeling than the boss… that’s Watson’s vocal delivery on Blood Harmony.
The final track Let it Drown takes us back to Petty’s influence, fully embracing what Mike Campbell said was the Heartbreaker’s motto, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” The arrangement on this song is my personal favorite of the record, as I’m always a sucker for an excellent pre-chorus into a perfectly penned sing-a-long refrain.
After three listens I had to know more about this EP and how it finally came to be, after five years of no new material being recorded. So I reached out to Robert with some serious, and not so serious questions about him and his big brother Joel Watson.
What’s the story of the songs chosen for the EP? Were they all written in 2020 or were they from the interval between 2015’s Land of Deepest Shade and 2020?
These songs really range quite a bit in terms of when they were written. Let It Drown is actually a pretty old song that was one of the early River Ghost Revue originals, but we’d never really recorded a decent version of it, so I tacked it on at the end of this EP. Broken Avenue is a couple of years old, but was written after Land of Deepest Shade, and the other two songs are both pretty new and written in 2020.
Where and when was this recorded?
Everything on the EP was recorded at home in my basement on a pretty basic setup. All the vocals and acoustic instruments were recorded using the Ear Trumpet condenser mic that RGR often uses when we perform live with a single mic. The original acoustic demos were started in 2019, and then I finished everything in spring and summer 2020.
This EP seems to lean more Americana than Land of Deepest Shade’s bluegrass sound. Was this a conscious choice to change direction or a natural evolution of where the songwriting has taken you?
This EP definitely skews more towards the singer-songwriter side of RGR than our last album, which was more bluegrass-oriented. Our band has always kind of existed between those two areas, and that’s been a goal of ours from the start. We don’t want to be pigeonholed into a single genre or caricature of what people think of when they hear “bluegrass band.”
I did have some additional demos recorded that fall more on the bluegrass side of things, and I contemplated including those on this EP, but as I started to put it together, I felt like this would be a stronger album if I kept the track list smaller and more focused, so I left off some of the bluegrass material. I was really excited about a couple of these songs as they started to come together, and then they set the tone for the rest of the EP.
Listening through the 4 songs they have the feel of a Tom Petty project in the Wildflowers days, was that an influence during the writing of this EP?
I wouldn’t say Wildflowers was a direct influence on what I was doing here, but it is without a doubt one of the best albums of all-time, so if anything I do musically puts someone in mind of Wildflowers, I won’t complain! I mean, using Wildflowers as a musical North Star isn’t the worst idea. (Just don’t tell Stan Lynch.)
Is this the beginning of a series of EPs or do you see this as a stand alone?
Time will tell, but I just see it as a one-off project. I think the next thing we’ll do recording-wise will probably include the full band. As has been well-documented, 2020 just threw a wrench into everything, so the timing was right for finishing off this project and putting it out there.
As the Columbia, MO version of the Gallagher brothers, who is Noel and who is Liam?
Oh, man. That’s a tough one to answer. I mean, Joel’s got better hair, so I want to slot him in as Liam, but I’m better at clasping my hands behind my back and tilting my head up to sing into the microphone, so who knows? And neither one of us can play the tambourine worth a damn.
On second thought, maybe we’re just Bonehead and Guigsy….
If you want a true, authentic piece of Americana to enjoy over and again you can’t do much better than Paint the Sky Blue by River Ghost Revue. If this album is a one off with more to come, I can’t wait. If there’s more like this in the band’s future our ears will all be better for it.