With so many wacky, electronic sounds filling our ears these days, it’s nice to settle down, dig out the old whiskey jugs and jam to a little bluegrass.
There’s something about that revved up sound that speaks to the soul, and I understand that it can sometimes be difficult to find the good stuff. But fear not, my eager bluegrass friends! Just beyond the eastern Minnesota border lies the homeland of one of the most monumental bluegrass bands around today, and their name is Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.
Listening to Horseshoes and Hand Grenades makes a guy want to pull his buddies close, hoot and holler, pour some whiskey over his heart and laugh till the moon sinks.
The five-piece met at college in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin a number of years ago, and since their meeting they have not stopped writing and performing across the nation. I have had the pleasure of seeing the Wisconsin natives live twice (once here in Mankato and once in Seattle) and let me tell you: these guys are the real deal. True string-pickers to the core (with the exception of large-lung David Lynch on harmonica.) And because of the time they have dedicated to performing wherever they can, they’re only getting better.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades has a unique, retro method of performing – they gather together, football huddle style, around one mic. That’s it, no fanciness about it. If the guitar needs to take precedence in the mix, guitarist Adam Greuel will step up with his instrument and the rest of the guys will fall back. Once Sam Odin finishes a stand-up bass solo, he’ll reverse penguin waddle his instrument to the rear of the group and never miss a note.
The effect is dynamically tremendous. I’ve never seen a band share a physical, auditory space the way Horseshoes and Hand Grenades does, and I sincerely doubt that I ever will.
The group’s first two albums, Another Round and This Old Town, are drenched with fantastic lyricism and have an impressive range of tenderness and grit, but their most recent album, Middle Western, sets a new bluegrass standard. The band refers to Middle Western as a “time capsule of memories,” and they could not be more correct. “Old Man and Me” realizes the importance of the love and friendship needed to pass gratefulness through the generations.
With a baritone voice that seems like it should belong to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father, fiddler Collin Mettelka sings, “Consider, friend, as you walk by/ As you are now so once was I/ As I am now you too shall be grateful for today/ Work hard, and play till you can’t breathe/ your love is all that you could need/ time lost is something you should grieve, but not for me,” all supported by a violin and vocal melody that harkens back to John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and makes the listener want to dip into a bottle of brandy wine and sip it slowly with a lover. Such is the stuff of grandfatherly wisdom.
Middle Western’s lyrics promote a mutual respect for the earth as well. The group’s consideration and gratefulness towards nature is unprecedented, especially in Russel Pedersen’s “For a River” where he personifies a river as a woman whose “kiss is worth a thousand little tunes.” After a few times through, the listener begins to realize how valuable an unpolluted river can be. A similar environmental message is found in “Ring Out” where Pedersen once again critiques the treatment of land throughout history and asks the listener to take responsibility for their environmental footprints: “Take what you will and reap what you do sew/ It’s a tender hand that’ll help this garden grow.”
And yet, despite the many worthy candidates, Mettelka’s “Forest for the Trees” takes the cake. The entire song is brilliant. It has a classical, cheerful melody that reminds me of a Disney movie scene placed in a medieval English tavern, and the lyrics relate the codependent classes of nature to the segregated and ignorant nature of government and politics: “Said the bird up to the oak tree/ ‘You don’t even care about my song/ You don’t sing along, you’re just standing there.’” Mettelka’s voice speaks for the low-level voiceless and creates a huge conversation between the ground and the sun all while the rest of the band plunks away behind him with vigor. Seriously. It’s gold.
To describe Middle Western any further would lessen its greatness, so just take my word for it and listen. If you’re a bluegrass fan, I promise you won’t be disappointed.