Flatt Lonesome embraces its musical and spiritual roots
by Jeff Koch
Posted 8/15/14, 11:05 am
Bluegrass newcomers Flatt Lonesome took the genre by storm in late 2012 with its debut album. The youth and energy of this family-based sextet “caught everyone’s attention,” according to Bluegrass Today, especially in light of its traditionalist bent.
While most young players on the scene import jazz and rock influences—creating a style called Newgrass—this band doubles down squarely on the classic elements of the music for its newest album. But it avoids feeling stuck in the past. Boasting masterful musicianship, sizzling vocals, and a hard-charging passion, Flatt Lonesome’s Too makes the powerful and surprising case that bluegrass is for today.
While the first two tracks deliver plenty of “lonesome” tales of love lost, “Never Let Me Go” considers the theme of love found and kept. Django Reinhardt-style strumming gives just the right countrified bounce to accompany an older couple as they dance and reflect on “when our love was new.” Tight, swing-era harmonies conjure up a post-war ballroom full of pleasant nostalgia.
But the album truly finds its stride with “Dangerous Dan.” Lead vocalist Buddy Robertson digs down into a satisfying blues riff and croons with artful cunning about “Dangerous Dan the moonshine man, running after money any way he can.” Sweltering acoustic guitar solos match Dan’s helter-skelter adventure “running from the law and running from the Lord.” Although the law didn’t catch him “the good Lord did” and the end finds “Dangerous Dan the preacher man, running down the devil any way he can.”
The band also shows a good sense of humor during “Slowly Getting You Out Of The Way,” in which a man waits for the woman he loves to get over another guy she prefers. A speedy interplay between banjo and mandolin expresses the character’s impatience to move from second fiddle to first while he reproves his rival, “You’ve done all the damage you can do / she still cries her heart over you / I’m standing round beside her night and day / and I’m slowly getting you out of the way.”
Flatt Lonesome displays a coherence that, while uncanny for such a young band, is no accident. Most of the members have been playing together since the cradle. Three siblings form the core of the band—Kelsi, Buddy, and Charli Robertson. They cut their teeth playing in the family bluegrass gospel band Sandy Creek Revival, led by their pastor dad, Dolton Robertson.
Dad’s influence casts a long shadow, and amidst the various jilted lover tracks, two gospel tunes satisfy in different ways. “I’m Ready Now” showcases a blazing dobro sound adequate to the song’s bold gospel message. Gospel has deep roots in this music, so it feels neither forced nor weird for the band to boldly proclaim, “He is knocking at your door / only you can let Him in / won’t you let Him fill your heart / and wash away your every sin.”
The heart of the album is in “He Still Hears,” written with Dolton Robertson. Carried along by a loping rhythm, Kelsi offers hopeful words to those feeling helpless and alone: “He still hears when your bread is turned to stone. / God will work according to his perfect all-wise will / just cry out to the Lord / He hears you still.”
Flatt Lonesome focuses on delivering high quality, foot-stomping ditties, but these musicians are not afraid to express their Christian identity. Thanks to effervescent playing and an irrepressible joy in tradition, the band succeeds in giving witness while making a strong musical statement even non-believers will appreciate.
Jeff is a mortgage lender and graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. He lives with his wife and their eight children in the Chicago area.