On the strength of the folk and Americana response to 2010’s DUST, Mark Lucas returns with another barrel of distilled Kentucky spirits: UNCLE BONES (Skillet Dog Records).
The mash is both sweeter and darker than before. In warm acoustic textures the album sketches curse-haunted Cherokee Bend through time—from the fairytale of what happened long ago at the old settlers’ mill to the mayhem witnessed just yesterday at the interstate rest stop. Fiddle and dobro braid soulful melodies, but the lyrics are in straight-up storyteller mode: midnight tales beside a small fire in a large darkness.
Songs about some highly unusual characters remain the Lucas trademark: among them a girl who weeps pearls (“Take Me Back, Water”), a killer who speaks in riddles (“Dragon Reel”), the man who became Death’s fiddler (“Uncle Bones”), a father bearing embers to the end of the world (“Carrying Fire”), and a widow who phones her husband’s casket (“Pick Up”). Myths emerge from the Kentucky woods as Lucas seeks out the archetypes in his vintage material.
The sound of UNCLE BONES is tonewood and steel, a mostly string band affair. The arrangements spotlight Bleu Mortensen’s dobro (Lyle Lovett, Mickey Newberry), Jeneé Fleenor’s fiddle (Larry Cordle, Martina McBride), and Lucas’s guitar and vocals. The acoustic settings aim for timelessness as the musical climate modulates from dark Appalachian balladry to barndance hijinks. The songs’ organic structures weave remarkable solos by Fleenor and Mortensen into the unfolding narratives. Two mid-tempo blues, “Big Bad Love” and “Pick Up,” shuffle the deck with black humor and swamp rhythms, and the twang boogie of “Grits and Redeye Gravy” is another changeup. “From seed to harvest,” says the fortune machine in the latter, “the time is short.” So carpe gritsem.