The emotional barometer of bluegrass registers somewhere between hilarity and sorrow, like a hee-haw hiccup after an epic night of breakup drinking. Bluegrass laughs at funerals and cries at birthdays. Likely the antic mood of bluegrass, part comedy and part tragedy, derives from all that steamy choo-choo chugging on the snare and washboard, the hard, syncopated strumming of the strings and the mournful Appalachian moon-calls that scratch harmonic tattoos into the clouds. And there’s something about the dank, foggy Northwest that makes it fertile ground for bluegrass music; just look at all the crackerjack jug bands plying their pop and rattle in Eugene right now.
Among the vanguard of the Emerald Valley’s bluegrass cognoscenti are The Whiskey Chasers, a band of musical revivers formed at the dawn of this decade but with roots reaching into to the blood-and-booze soaked soil of Prohibition-era America. Their just-released debut, Well for the Worse, is a modern-day tour through the dusty byways and murderous mountain passes of rootsy Americana — a sepia-tinted landscape of boozy nights, violent femmes, lonesome men and the arterial kinks of broken hearts.
Helmed by singers-songwriters Gracin Dorsey (mandolin) and Kevin Davison (guitar) — and buttressed by Tony Cipolle on banjo, Cindy Ingram on washboard, Seth Kimmel on his handmade bass and Gregg Vollstedt on dobro — the Chasers’ breakout album opens with “Darlin’ Corey,” a traditional number that strikes the perfect tone with its rumbling, two-step lament about a bad woman who done a man wrong. From there, the superb songwriting of Davison and Dorsey takes over, as each musician, in turn, mines the psychic vaults of old-time country music, turning out a classic bluegrass cycle of murder ballads, mountain songs, harmonic jeremiads and upbeat jigs. In range, style and content, The Whiskey Chasers hew close to their forebears — the Carter Family, Lead Belly, The Band — and they do it with energy, integrity and talent.
Well for the Worse is solid through-and-through, full of lickety-split runs, bittersweet harmonies and the relentless rhythms of a runaway train. Standout numbers include Davison’s “Lisa Please,” a shiny, chunky love song full of high hooks, and Dorsey’s brokenhearted “Split Down the Way,” an irresistible tune with harmonies that soar.
The Whiskey Chasers host a CD release party with Conjugal Visitors 9 pm Friday, March 15, at Sam Bond’s; $5.