“Tears they’re falling from what I been through / This pain in my heart that’s aching for you / That black rushin’ river is all I can see / And the whispering waters are calling for me,” we’re told in the chorus of Rock Hearts’ “Whispering Waters,” one of my favorite songs included on their debut album Starry Southern Nights. Although lyrics tend to account for but a fraction of the charismatic appeal this band enjoys in their rookie release, they’re definitely the source character and color in tracks like this one, the title cut, “Don’t Take It Too Bad” and “Stagger Lee.” Starry Southern Nights is as short and sweet as an LP can technically be, but while it’s not the longest record I’ve reviewed in 2020, it’s absolutely one of the most substance-packed.
Ned Luberecki’s production style in this album can definitely be credited with putting the strings at center stage more often than not, and when it came to making covers of “99 Year Blues” and “Don’t Let Smokey Mountain Smoke Get in Your Eyes” to get the tracklist rolling, he wasn’t about to give us anything but the tightest bluegrass arrangements this band could perform. Instrumentally speaking, Starry Southern Nights is probably one of the more outwardly expressive debuts I’ve heard in this genre in quite some time, which is impressive in itself when you think about just how many ‘grass players have been getting back to the basics of the style coinciding with the dawn of a new, millennial-led movement.
The ballads in Starry Southern Nights are exceptionally brooding and complement the organic feel of the lyrics throughout the entire LP, and I think the title track will definitely make for a fine music video at some point in the near future. “Juxtaposed” lacks its lyrical presence, but together the two songs feel like sides of the same coin, exhibiting just how much room this band still has to grow while asserting their overall approach as one that doesn’t need any sort of synthetic crutch to have mass crossover appeal to fans of country and folk music. That’s important when creating your first record and, for that matter, making anything in the fast-paced market of the 20’s.
I didn’t know anything about Rock Hearts before picking up my own copy of Starry Southern Nights this year, but if this is a good representation of what their sound is going to be built on in future recordings, I would love to see where they go from here. Bluegrass has been one of the only genres to really surprise me in 2020 in terms of creativity and outside-the-box thinking, and though this might be one of the more progressive efforts you’re going to acquire before the year comes to an end, it has just enough of a familiarity to its framing that longtime purists in the bluegrass community shouldn’t have too difficult a time enjoying its content. In short, Rock Hearts have made a fan out of me, and I think they will you as well.