by Jordan Green
Presenting a narrated bluegrass song cycle about reincarnation at a bar on a Friday night might seem like an iffy proposition. As it turned out, the notion was just audacious and ridiculous enough to succeed.
It probably helped that Andrew Eversole share a bill with the massive indie-orchestral-folk ensemble the Collection, local scene purveyors Matty Sheets & the Blockheads and husband-and-wife duo Lowland Hum, helping secure a near capacity show at the Blind Tiger on July 18. Eversole and his Greensboro-based band took the opening slot, likely maximizing the audience’s attention to the narrative detail of his project. Although his most recent album came out on Valentine’s Day, the show was billed as CD release party. Likewise for headliners the Collection.
An irrepressible banjoist with a mystical streak, Eversole set his story in his native country on the Cumberland Plateau in southeastern Kentucky. The Cumberland Ghost, the album and lead track, concerns a soul on a path of enlightenment through various stages of reincarnation. This being Appalachia, the particulars include a series of incidents of morbidity, including mining disasters, war and a fatal confrontation between moonshiners and government revenuers.
Eversole wisely led his band through more familiar material to initiate his set, leading off with the standard folk song “Salty Dog Blues” and moving into a cover of “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles.
“This is by one of our favorite bluegrass bands out of England, the Beatles,” Eversole joked. “You know, John Lennon used to play the banjo. I think if they had just stuck with that they would have been a lot bigger than they ended up being. Maybe not.”
The lead title track of the album — five songs paired with narrations, plus an unrelated bonus track clocking in at 27 minutes — sets the stage for the song cycle. After Eversole wrote “The Cumberland Ghost,” he said he realized he had written about the same soul experiencing death through different lifetimes. The narratives of the remaining four songs, including “Work” (about a ruthless mine operator), “24” (concerning a weary soldier), “Blue Kentucky Night” (a tale of doomed outlaw lovers) and “On High” (about an owl as the embodiment of the final stage of enlightenment) flow naturally from the framework established by the lead track.
Featuring Eversole’s fleet-fingered banjo playing, rich with tonality, each song presents a unique texture and storyline, with unexpected melodic turns and often arresting wordplay.
“Work” captures the pickaxe rhythm of manual deep-shaft mining, not unlike the Allen Toussaint R&B chestnut “Working in the Coal Mine.”
The chorus of the bracing “Blue Kentucky Night,” concerning a lovestruck moonshining couple delivering their product to market, bursts forth with rhymed insistence: “I’ll wait for you, you wait for me in Louisville/ The stars shine so bright through the blue Kentucky night/ Keep the fire burning hot for the still.”
Sarah Strable is an integral part of the Eversole’s sound, her vocal harmonies a haunting echo of the songwriter and lead singer’s articulation. Sheila Duell occasionally contributed to three-part harmonies at the July 18 concert, but her primary task was narration between songs — a task that she delivered with even more commitment and passion before a live audience than on record. Andrew Eversole’s elder brother, Ryan Jesse, played fiddle and mandolin. Ben Singer, who recorded and co-produced the album, stepped out from behind the boards to play acoustic guitar at the concert. And Benji Smith handled upright bass for the show, coaxing out a thumping beat.
Eversole said the idea for the album stemmed from his studies of philosophy and Buddhism at Guilford College, coupled with his personal experience with death in southeastern Kentucky. A grandfather who mined coal died of black-lung disease, and other relatives engaged in moonshining, Eversole said.
“It feels good to think about how it keeps going,” he said. “I like the idea of second chances, growing as a person. If you f*** up in this life, you have another chance in the next.”
During an interview on the patio in front of the Blind Tiger, Eversole made it a point to mention that he is a certified hypnotist. He cherishes the two pursuits in equal measure, and said he finds fulfillment in helping people quit smoking and relieve stress through hypnotism.
“Music to me is a form of hypnotism,” he said. “If you think about rhythm, drum circles with the ancients — that’s how they would get into different states of mind. Music has the ability to transport people without physically moving them.”