American folk music has always had a populist perspective, a vision of music made by the people, for the people. Asheville, North Carolina roots band The Resonant Rogues know this well, for they’ve traveled the byways and highways of America, even crossed the water to Europe and the Mediterranean with instruments and songs in tow. Anchored by the songwriting duo Sparrow and Keith Smith, the Rogues have shared songs with train-hoppers in New Orleans, busked on the streets of Budapest, learned Turkish Romani dance in Istanbul, and marched in protest in the hills of Appalachia. Throughout, the stories they’ve heard and the people they’ve met have fueled their music, which abounds with influences like Eastern European Romani brass bands, New Orleans street jazz, old-time stringbands, Woody Guthrie anti-fascist folk, French jazz manouche, and Middle Eastern rhythms. It’s not easy to pull off such a bold combination of genres, but The Resonant Rogues learned this music in person from the people who created it, so they have a tie to each tradition and a working knowledge of what this music means to the ordinary people that make this music every day. It’s a tintype view on the modern world, a cracked image that reflects the past through a prism of the future.
On their new album, Hands in the Dirt, The Resonant Rogues bring these stories and influences to the fore, all filtered through a thoroughly contemporary perspective. The title track speaks to a younger generation’s renewed interest in sustainable gardening and agriculture, but pulses like an old country blues song. Opening track “Muddy River,” pulls from the banjo/fiddle pulse of stringband music, but speaks to the ever-increasing speed of change. The song “Am I Right” channels the swing of American doo-wop, blended with New Orleans second-line influences and fueled by the tenor sax of Asheville’s Ben Colvin (and Sparrow’s accordion). To make Hands in the Dirt, The Resonant Rogues drew from their rich network of musical friends in the progressive Appalachian city of Asheville, North Carolina, like fiddler Drayton Aldridge, bassist Craig Sandberg, pedal steel player Matt Smith, cellist Franklin Keel, and drummer Mattick Frick. However, for their final song on the album, the powerfully moving protest song, “Can’t Come In,” they invited a new friend, Basher Balleh, a Syrian refugee musician and country singer living in Istanbul who plays with the band Country for Syria. The song references classic folk tropes like John Hurt’s “Make Me A Pallet on the Floor” to talk about the current anti-immigration sentiment in the United States. It’s a scary new world today, but The Resonant Rogues make music that refuses to shy away from our current reality. They make music for the people they meet every day who are affected by our current policies, and they make music to take us through these dark times.