The latest recording by The Ebony Hillbillies, a group that self-identifies as “the premier African-American string band in America,” is defiant on multiple levels. Listeners to 5 Miles from Town
may find themselves internally debating matters of authenticity (the musicians use traditional instrumentation such as shaker and washboard, but hail from New York City), as well as classification. Is the music jazz? Blues? Soul? Folk? Country? In fact, The Hillbillie make American music that, at various times, is all of these things and more. And the players’ refusal to be pinned down or pigeonholed is among their finest qualities.
“Hog Eyed Man,” the traditional piece that opens the album, is a hoedown-style showcase for Henrique Prince’s violin sawing, which careens wildly from measure to measure but somehow manages not to go completely off the rails. That’s followed by a cover of Willie Dixon’s venerable “Wang Dang Doodle,” which finds singers Prince, Norris Washington Bennett and Gloria Thomas Gassaway combining their voices for maximum joy over a light rhythmic bed laid down by acoustic bassist William “Salty Bill” Salter and percussionists Allanah Salter, Newman Taylor Baker and Ali “A.R.” Rahman, among others. It’s a stylistic combo platter that blends genres in a wholly natural way.
Representing an even cheekier mash-up is a medley of Prince’s “Cream,” dominated by Bennett’s banjo and a vocal that’s pure Appalachia, and “I’m on My Way to Brooklyn,” a cheerful a cappella tribute to the borough. The latter ends unexpectedly with the gunfire introduction to “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” a raucous, unnerving tune that tackles officer-involved shootings of African-Americans in a manner that feels both ancient and exceedingly up to date. Of such contradictions are The Ebony Hillbillies made.—Michael Roberts
Featured photo by Bill Steber and Pat Casey.