Thrusting forward with an intensity unparalleled in other genres in “Stagger Lee” while crushing us with more modest rhythms in “Don’t Take It Too Bad.” Manipulating a mild country melody in the title cut from Starry Southern Nights only to turn around and give us a drunken swing as enticing as an old fashioned country breakfast in “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.” Taking rock n’ roll ala Hot Tuna and giving it a bluegrass kick in the pants with “99 Year Blues” or jamming like there is no tomorrow in “Juxtaposed,” if there’s one thing we can learn about Rock Hearts from listening to their debut album, it’s that theirs is one of the more versatile collective talents in a young bluegrass generation.
Resonating with the spirit of vintage roots players in “Whisper Waters” while paying tribute to heroes like the Osborne Brothers in “Don’t Let Smokey Mountain Smoke Get in Your Eyes,” Rock Hearts aren’t backing down from the difficult task of producing a quality crossover LP in 2020, and though there are a lot of other groups set on doing the same thing at the moment, Starry Southern Nights is nonetheless one of the more memorable additions to the autumn soundtrack of 2020 that I’ve come across in the year thus far.
In this album, melodicism is always the objective over demonstrating brutish agility or cosmetic fireworks as some of the more pop-friendly bluegrass units have been in recent years, and you needn’t look much further than the peaceful drone of the title track in this album to understand precisely what I mean. The mixing is solid from start to finish in Starry Southern Nights, which allows for such a degree of instrumental definition in “Juxtaposed,” “Stagger Lee” and “Don’t Take It Too Bad” that it’s almost as though we’re listening to a live performance rather than something recorded within the four confining walls of a studio.
“Whispering Waters,” “Don’t Let Smokey Mountain Smoke Get in Your Eyes” and “99 Year Blues” probably have the most live potential of any songs here, but in all actuality, I don’t think there’s a stitch of content in this tracklist that wouldn’t sound spot-on amazing on stage. Bluegrass and all roots music tends to shine brightest in front of a crowd, and with any luck, we’ll all have the chance to see and hear Rock Hearts perform their work a lot sooner than later.
Starry Southern Nights is a terrific LP for sure, but there are times when it feels almost a little too cohesive to be a debut album. Performances like that of “Wake up and Smell the Coffee” certainly don’t sound as though they’re coming from a group of rookies still trying to find their footing in an increasingly cutthroat underground scene, but instead from veterans of the craft who know exactly what kind of music they want to make and become known for. I’d love to hear them experiment a little more with the harmonies they use as a foundation for a lot of the best moments in this greenhorn effort, and overall, this is definitely one debut I would recommend across the board.