Dennis K. Duff & Guests
“Songs From Lyon County”
Wilson Holler/Hey Mr. TVA/Road To Dover/Night Riders/TC & Pearl/Castle On the Cumberland/Iron Hill/’37 Flood/When I Leave Kentucky
Producers: Dennis Duff & Cody Kilby
Gracey Holler Music – 26:13
Let me introduce you to Dennis Duff, who shoulders some risk in picking up the tab for his concept CD, “Songs From Lyon County (Ky.),” but it was purely personal. Since the singer-songwriter’s somewhat obscure himself, and despite their obvious skills, his guest artists are not exactly household names, meaning this doesn’t bode well sales-wise.
Yet from the opening track – “Wilson Holler” – of this nine-song selection, one senses the sheer passion driving Duff and company on their unique musical journey.
Duff, whom we first heard of, winning the 17th annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest’s country division with his ballad “Man of Few Words,” conducted during MerleFest 2009. Then Dennis went on to pen compositions recorded by more recognizable Bluegrass names like Donna Ulisse and Mo Pitney. Duff’s emotional creation “God’s Front Porch” was a 2011 finalist for IBMA Gospel Song of the Year.
A Kentucky native, Duff’s crafted some truly touching tunes herein reflecting his homeland history, and even offers a fitting tribute to his parents “T.C. & Pearl” on the new album, released Sept. 7, 2018. Guest artists include Bradley Walker, Holly Pitney, Paul Brewster, Josh Shilling and Brooke & Darin Aldridge (Sweethearts of Bluegrass). It’s on the Gracey Holler Music indie label, and Duff co-produced the disc with multi-instrumentalist Cody Kilby, who also engineered. Assisting Kilby instrumentally are Alan Bartram, bass (and backing vocals); Jason Carter and Andy Leftwich, fiddles.
“Lyon County, Ky., has a rich history and some of that history is mine,” recalls Duff, emphasizing, “My roots go back to the mid-1800s, when my ancestors moved from Tennessee to an area located between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers called ‘Tween the Rivers.’ The Civil War, tobacco wars, floods, moonshine, TVA, the iron industry and a steady faith in God have all had a huge impact on Lyon County, its landscape and its people.”
Storyteller Duff points out his songs were inspired by reactions of the folk who populated that region to those events that occurred there: “Some may make you smile, some may make you cry, but I hope they all connect you to the past and take you on a musical journey that you enjoy.”
“Wilson Holler,” a medium tempo tune, concerns moonshiners supplying “Scarface” Al Capone’s Chicago crowd during the turbulent heyday of Prohibition (1920-’33). Paul Brewster not only sings lead on this track, but backs himself harmoniously as well, deftly aided by Cody’s dexterous deliveries on guitar, banjo, dobro and mandolin. Bartram’s acoustic bass pickin’ and Carter’s keening fiddle enhance the cut. Duff’s concise lyrics vividly set the scene: “Up in Wilson Holler/There’s a sweet stream of water flowing/From a rock in the side of a hill . . . Add sugar and the corn/Cook it up a storm/And the moon starts shining/Right outta the Still.”
“Hey, Mr. TVA” has Mr. Duff singing lead, revealing a pleasant enough voice that manages to convey the hurt and humiliation his lyrics express. The song dwells on government’s coarse damming up of the rivers, creating lakes to supply hydroelectric power throughout the Tennessee Valley. Duff laments the battle of wills between the newly-designated agency and generations-old landowners, most too poor to deter the bullying tactics, taking their land: “Sweat and blood of generations, fell to eminent domain/Now the rows of silent tombstones, are all that remain . . . Some say that it was worth it, more was gained than was lost/But only those whose lives were shattered, know how much it really cost.”
Duff also sings the slow-winding “Road To Dover,” and about cell warriors’ “Castle On the Cumberland,” the latter enhanced by Leftwich’s fiddle. (The “Castle,” in case you’re confused, is the Kentucky State Pen in Eddyville.) That’s Brewster rhapsodizing on the upbeat “Iron Hill,” also to fine effect. (He’s fresh from Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder.)
Now “Night Riders,” about a secret organization initially turned this reviewer off, assuming it was glorifying the KKK; however, Duff set us straight, noting it wasn’t the Klan, but impoverished tobacco farmers banding together to revolt against the mighty Duke Trust tobacco empire, trying to starve them out of business. (This was documented by Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, in his non-fiction book “On Bended Knees,” about the Black Patch Wars.) Singer Josh Shilling takes lead here, beautifully backed by the string squad, Kilby, Bartram and Leftwich, that is, as he warns: “When you hear them hoof beat pounding/You know it’s time to change your ways . . . Brother better head for cover, from the Silent Brigade.”
“TC & Pearl,” Dennis’ parental paean proves a tender intro to a hard scrabble couple, who despite the odds stacked against them, stood their ground, “And the winds of fate began to twist and twirl, for TC and Pearl . . .” Brooke Aldridge’s sweet soprano gives credence to this song of praise, and attests to her 2017 IBMA best female vocalist win. No doubt her comfort zone improved immensely by background harmony hubby Darin Aldridge delivered.
The mid-tempo “’37 Flood,” focusing on the flood devastation of January 1937, finds Duff back on mic, adroitly detailing its impact on the Ohio River-area population. Besides bass, Bartram also renders harmony backing. Dennis does have a way with words, “From the Appalachian hills, through the streets of Louisville/To Paducah, they all paid the price . . . The muddy waters flowed from the Ohio, and swallowed everything in sight . . .”
The last track – “When I Leave Kentucky” – is the first single off “ . . . Lyon County,” kicked off by fiddle and mandolin. Duff’s simply portraying musically a love of one’s home turf, vowing never to depart, until it’s time to fly away: “When I leave Kentucky/They’ll lay me in the ground/When I leave Kentucky/You’ll know I’m Heaven bound . . .” Newcomer Holly Pitney’s soft and vibrant vocals match the warm baritone of former IBMA vocalist of the year Bradley Walker, which could make this a potential Bluegrass chart contender. Alabama native Walker, who suffers Muscular Dystrophy, and Moe Pitney’s sister Holly each provide close harmonies, as well, to this ballad, released June 20.
Some may say this sort of historically-oriented concept is eminently predictable and geared more to domestic fans; however, these events are rarely even covered in today’s classrooms. Moreover, these seasoned ears recognize something more challenging than mere history, marking it as aesthetically and culturally significant. Anyway, it’s obviously an album made not necessarily for sales, but simply for pure pleasure. So seek it and enjoy.