Hogs on the Highway
Sugar Hill Records
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Delivering their version of Texas bluegrass, the Bad Livers have released their sixth album, Hogs on the Highway. Bad Livers are the Abbott and Costello of modern bluegrass music: the tall, thin Danny Barnes (banjo, acoustic guitar, and lead vocals) is the perfect foil for the short, portly Mark Rubin (string bass and tuba). They are backed by Ralph White III (fiddle, button accordian, and mbira) and Bob Grant (mandolin and acoustic guitar). Their music, while a serious study in bluegrass, also pokes fun at the genre.
Bad Livers put their modern spin on traditional bluegrass themes. Perhaps the best song on the album is Counting the Crossties, a modern version of the old-timey theme of lost love and railroading that deserves to be a bonafide radio hit on Americana stations. Another winner is the banjo-pickin' News not the Weather, which is a clever tune about a woman who small talks her way around the big breakup. "Give me the news not the weather," her lover pleads. The title track is a countrified version of the old theme: "rooster is out of the pen and hobo's on the backporch looking for a meal."
The instrumentation on Hogs on the Highway is eclectic, to say the least. The banjos, resonator guitars, tuba, accordian, mbira, and "bajo sexto" provide the perfect setting for the band. The tuba, in particular, is an unusual choice that works well when it appears. On Lathe Creek it provides the strong backbeat for the band, and its solo on The National Blues is priceless.
A real anomaly on the album is the last song Falling Down the Stairs (With a Pistol in My Hand). This song is too musically and thematically dark for an album of generally upbeat four-piece bluegrass. Two instrumental bonus tracks follow. The first is a throwaway, whereas the second is a short, hyper romp, a la Orange Blossom Special.
Bad Livers are to bluegrass as Brave Combo is to polka: music of the nuclear form. While slightly more serious than their previous album, Industry and Thrift, Hogs on the Highway will be enjoyed by anyone looking for something just a little bit different.
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz