The same way The Decemberists built their popularity on songs chronicling mothers whoring themselves out, peeping toms, murderous townsfolk; abuse and neglect and all other sorts of cruelty, Among The Oak & Ash have reworked Appalachian murder ballads for their self-titled debut.
In six days, Among The Oak & Ash’s Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr (both with established solo careers) recorded an entire album of traditional songs, preserving relics of a time and place no longer in existence. The liner notes say this: “Perhaps these songs are never learned; they are just accessed somehow, reaching us like light from a distant star, we are only able to gaze upon its by-gone presence.”
Many of the songs are old spirituals, while others are tales of different injustices. “Hiram Hubbard” recounts, with a thumping bassline, a sheriff and posse executing an innocent man. They are all old songs, but the lyrics of each song still resound in a chillingly beautiful way. “Hiram Hubbard” ends with a pain in the pit of your stomach, saying, “They led him up the holler/ They led him up the hill/ To a place of execution/ Where he begged to write his will/ They wound the cords around him/ They bound him to a tree…/ Nine shots rang through him/ And he died most bitterly/ Hiram Hubbard was not guilty, I heard a great many say…” Such matter-of-fact violence blends with other songs — of love and hope, some of hopelessness — and builds what seems to be a living history book for the mountainous south.
In keeping with the depressing-as-hell theme of the rest of the songs, a bonus track is included: a surprise cover of the Smiths’ song, “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Little is different from the original other than vocals and that distinctive Smiths sound, and it’s oddly fitting for Joplin and Starr’s voices. Although it gels with the album as a whole, it still registers a well-earned WTF. Adding to this, every other song has a short history in the liner notes, describing why it was chosen and where it came from; the choice to include “Bigmouth” is without explanation.
Thirteen songs long, Among The Oak & Ash gives a modern voice to a generation and culture long past. Tracks like “Pretty Saro” and “Come All You Young And Tender Ladies” are approached in a traditional manner, while “Peggy-O” is modernized, with xylophone, driving guitars, and a twee-esque soundscape. The lyrics fit in beside bands like The Decemberists and Port O’Brien: “A captain fell in love with a lady like a dove/ And he called her by name: Peggy-O/ And for this gilded dove, pretty Peggy-O/ And for this gilded dove, a captain died for love.”
Haunting and heartfelt, Starr and Joplin put their hand prints on songs shared over hundreds of years, continuing the communal history of these oral traditions.