Harley String Band is: Three talented singer-songwriters who mine the deep veins of American music and bring back the occasional rough diamond. Supporting each other on a wide variety of instruments, they aspire to breathe new life and fresh ideas into traditional musical forms.
Originally inspired by the 50th anniversary of the elementary school attended by producer/band member Steve Coffee's daughter, the album celebrates outdoor learning and nature's ability to inspire.
Calling the Cougar of Haycock Woods a children’s album is like calling The Lion King a kids’ movie: accurate, but hardly adequate. This first outing by the Northern Virginia-based Harley String Band is adventurous and eclectic, genre-hopping from bluegrass to pop and beyond, ever grounded by the acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bouzouki.
Consider for example the “Courtship of Miss Mouse,” penned by Jim Johnson. Beneath this old-fashioned barnyard folk tale, the banjo and the African thumb piano stir up a tasty Afro-Appalachian gumbo, driving a minor-modal mood that somehow both haunts and cooks.
Consider also the sentimental and decidedly parental “Cloud Shape Animals,” written by Steve Coffee. In this violin-tinged musing on impermanence, the ever changing clouds reflect both the all-too-fast passing of childhood and the vast changes we’ve wrought in our brief term on the planet.
Nature is the theme of the disc, but more often than not it’s nature that has the last laugh. Jim Clark’s “The Snake Song” is a playful folk tune about eating snakes—and the likelihood that you may end up dinner yourself. Coffee’s countrified “Chiggers, Ticks, Spiders and Snakes,” reminds us grownups that our childhood probably wasn’t as idyllic as we might like to remember.
Call it “the vermin album.”
The title tune tells a 10,000-year history of the cougar’s relationship with the eastern U.S. and its human inhabitants. Against these long odds, the song actually works, and it leaves us wondering whether the cougar will also beat the long odds against its mortal enemy.
The plant kingdom is not overlooked either. We hear the call of the wild coming from the direction of the poison ivy, and we hear the monarch caterpillar’s love song for its milkweed. (It’s like a weekend at the Dairy Queen.)
Children make occasional vocal appearances. Fourth-graders sing a chorus of the ubiquitous “This Land Is Your Land,” but it fades into a decidedly minor key as Native American flute and drum take ownership of the song and turn it completely on its head.
The disc ends (almost) with “Drifting Away,” a lovely and disarming lullaby infused with violin, viola, and string bass.
It should be admitted that the disc is a home studio production, but this is only apparent around the edges. And true, the concept began as a PTA fundraiser, but the scope and ambition of the songwriting and arranging make it easy to forget these humble beginnings.