Clean Curve of Hill Against Sky-Songs of the Kansa
"This band is the real deal; their music rises from the land they love," writes Cheryl Unruh of the Emporia Gazette. In this first volume of the unique album series 'Songs of the Kansas Flint Hills,' Tallgrass Express String Band brings the prairie to life with sixteen all-original songs about this rolling Flint Hills grassland region of Eastern Kansas. As described in the title song by a rider surrounded by an unbroken horizon of miles of virgin tallgrass prairie, this is a land where you can still see the "Clean Curve of Hill Against Sky." The final song, "Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie" explains how the Flint Hills survived the plow and today are enjoyed by all who cherish their wildlife and scenery. One great plus to the physical CD package is a full color pocket-insert 20-page Keepsake Album. Each of the sixteen songs is featured on it's own page containing beautiful photo illustrations along with background songnotes by composer Annie Wilson. The last page lists websites to organizations helping to celebrate and preserve Flint Hills land and culture. The Tallgrass Express sound is a mix of traditional styles they describe as "roots music from the tallgrass prairie." The group's wide-ranging instrumental skills on strings include fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dobro, guitar and bass, complemented with occasional sonorous fills from concertina and harmonica. Along with carefully blended harmonies, this album emphasizes their female lead vocalist, Annie Wilson, who was named 'The Flint HIlls Balladeer' by the Kansas Governor. She wrote the 15 vocals songs on the album. The album's one all-instrumental tune, "Home from the Z-Bar," is a lovely waltz by the band's fiddler Charlie Laughridge. This album contains a wide variety of styles reflecting the versatility of this band. The songs range from sweet, lyrical folk-style tunes with mandolin leads such as "Sail the Summer Sky" (about six prairie birds) and "Diamond Creek Cowboy" (a ranch romance), to the quick-paced fiddle and banjo of "Working Flint Hills Cowboy" and charging bluegrass sound of "Runaway Nell." Two songs with a lively swing-ragtime rhythm are the playful "Night Out on the Prairie" (about wildlife at evening time) and "Getting a Count" (a real life account of the cowboy's duty to check on and count his milling herd). In contrast, the unique, slow "Hot Summer Day" features a mesmerizing sliding dobro and lazy harmonica to make you feel like it's the middle of July. The tightly arranged "Moon Can Take Me Home" is the only male lead with Carl Reed's beautiful tenor voice recounting the thoughts of a homesick traveler gazing at the moon. This album has real historic value in two ballads, "Flint Hills Billy" about Annie's father's early childhood on the ranch, and "Chase County Courthouse Ball of 1873" recalling the opening of the county's architectural treasure. The collection has a distinctly positive, upbeat mood, with a couple of exceptions. The spare, melancholic "Stopping by the Homestead Ruins," describes a rider checking her pasture and stopping to contemplate the early inhabitants of the 1880's stone ruins (based on Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening"). Played in simple old-time style, "The Kaw Trail" tells the tragic story of the mighty Kaw Indian tribe during their final years in Kansas in 1800's, when they could still take their annual journey to traditional buffalo hunting grounds. Notably, the tallgrass prairie's signature species is featured in the joyful "Big Bluestem: King of the Prairie." This song actually contains verses on the carbon cycle and anatomy of grass plants, but all in a light-hearted, lyrical melody that celebrates the human connection to this essential, regal life form. You won't be disappointed in this unique album from the heart of a group deeply connected to their prairie homeland. As described by Jim Hoy, author of Flint Hills Cowboy, it contains "Pure poetry...describes the beauty of the Flint Hills...Words and melodies that embody the landscape and bring the tallgrass prairie to life."