Monday, November 6, 2023

Henhouse Prowlers: “Lead And Iron” (2023) CD Review

Henhouse Prowlers are a bluegrass band based in Chicago. They released their first album in 2007, and then in 2013 started an educational mission to promote bluegrass music in other parts of the world, working with the U.S. State Department on cultural exchange tours to places in the Middle East and Siberia, among others. The band has gone through a few personnel changes over the years, and now is made up of Ben Wright on banjo, cello banjo and vocals; Jon Goldfine on upright bass and vocals; Jake Howard on mandolin, octave mandolin and vocals; and Chris Dollar on guitar and vocals. Their new album, Lead And Iron, features all original material, with all four band members contributing songs. They are joined by a couple of special guests on one track.

The album opens with “Home For.” It is interesting how two of the most appealing subjects in music are the road and home, and if the road leads home, well, then you have it all, I suppose. This song acknowledges the draw of the road, then praises home. “Catching rides to places I’d explore/Seeing spaces I ain’t seen before/But there’s so much more to be home for.” And in this song, there is a baby coming too, so it’s not just about the place of home, but about family. This song has a pleasant vibe. Chris Dollar wrote this one. That’s followed by the album’s title track, “Lead And Iron.” They slow things down for this one, a more serious and powerful number featuring some good harmonies. This song addresses school shootings, something that has become all too common, this nation sadly more enamored of its guns than of its children. It is from the perspective of a parent who has lost a child in a shooting. “It’s raining prayers, and it still ain’t helping.” This track features an excellent and thoughtful instrumental section with space to breathe. This song was written by Jake Howard.

The pace then picks up for “My Last Run,” written by Chris Dollar. “It’s my last run/And my home is at the end.” I was just saying how a song about being on the road home often has special appeal, and this song proves it again. It features some great playing from all four musicians, and there is a good deal of joy in those leads. The song might be about traveling musicians on tour, but it works for anyone who is excited to get home. Then “Wobbly Dog” is a wonderful lighthearted instrumental tune. There is something about this one that feels like home too, making me think of folks gathering in a back yard, perhaps engaging in some contest toward the end. It was composed by Jake Howard. Then as “Subscription To Loneliness” begins, it has a good old-time country vibe and sound. It recounts those early loves that inevitably end. Ah, young romance and heartache. “I held her close, we were hand in hand/I haven’t heard from her since then/Subscription to loneliness/Heartache and emptiness/I never signed up for this/Lonesome condition.” The fiddle tells us all we need to know, doesn’t it? Actually, fiddles. This is the track to feature special guests Becky Buller and Laura Orshaw, both on fiddle. There is a playful, humorous aspect to this one too. It was written by Jon Goldfine and Rick Lang, the first song the two wrote together.

“Passenger Train Boogie” is a fun one with a good rhythm. And the vocal delivery is absolutely delightful. “Take my nickel, take my dime/But, sir, please don’t waste no more of my time.” I can’t help but love this one. There is a bit of a jazzy thing happening. Check out that guitar work. So good! Chris Dollar wrote this song. The band slows things down again for “Forgotten Gravestones,” written by Ben Wright. The first time I listened to this disc, I was visiting my mom in a small town in central Massachusetts, and there is a graveyard in town that seemed a sort of forgotten place even when I was growing up. We’d walk there as kids, of course, but I don’t recall seeing anyone ever visit a specific grave, even back then. This song is about driving past such a place, and contemplating who its occupants it might be. “Forgotten gravestones up on a hill/When I’m long gone, they’ll be there still/Each and every stone there stands for a soul/But who they were, I’ll never know.”

“Rolling Wheels” is a sweet number with wonderful harmonies, and some good work on banjo. Again, the road takes us where we belong, “Coming back to see my true love.” This song was written by Chris Dollar. Things turn darker, more serious on “Died Before Their Time,” a song written by Jon Goldfine, Ben Wright, Jake Howard, Chris Dollar and Stephen Mougin. Death has been on my mind a lot lately, and it seems that it is surrounding us these days, with many people dying before their time. Some people seem eager for it. How else can you explain the fetish for guns in this country, and the tendency toward war that humanity can’t shake? “When art and music threaten rules/Prison camps where once were schools.” That’s followed by “The Show.” I suppose we all put on a show from time to time. The problem is when you believe your own character to the point where you forget who you really are, when the role takes over. “The show you put on/Between dusk and dawn/Well, we have all seen it/We know you don’t mean it.” Chris Dollar wrote this one. The album concludes with “My Little Flower,” a totally delightful fast-paced gem written by Jake Howard. It features great vocal work and some excellent playing. It’s a song to leave us feeling good, even if things don’t last. “My little flower, my little flower/You said you can’t stay for long/I’ll be back soon, is what you told me/Another year and I’ll be dead and gone.”

CD Track List

  1. Home For
  2. Lead And Iron
  3. My Last Run
  4. Wobbly Dog
  5. Subscription To Loneliness
  6. Passenger Train Boogie
  7. Forgotten Gravestones
  8. Rolling Wheels
  9. Died Before Their Time
  10. The Show
  11. My Little Flower

Lead And Iron was released on September 15, 2023.

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