"Riverland" is the new album from Eric Brace, Peter Cooper & Thomm Jutz.
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It’s a concept album, a daring thing in these days of shuffle modes and short attention. It’s about Mississippi — both the big river and the troubled-but-beautiful state — though Brace is a Washington D.C. guy, Cooper is from South Carolina, and Jutz grew up in Germany’s Black Forest.
On paper, it's a suspect idea. In song, it shines like a bright Natchez morning, and hurts like a lonesome Meridian motel room.
“There is a beauty to Mississippi’s brokenness,” writes Mississippi-reared musician Charlie Worsham in Riverland’s liner notes. “Mississippi’s pain and Mississippi’s pride are irrevocably woven together, like floodwater and delta dirt. One could not have been born without the other . . . The men who made this album are not from Mississippi, but they are pilgrims, and they know. They know the magic of the Magnolia State, and they speak the truth. They have made what the Japanese call Kintsukuroi, or ‘golden repair.’ Leonard Cohen describes it by saying ‘the cracks are where the light gets in.’ I just call it home. Because we are all broken. And we are all pilgrims. And we all need a little Mississippi.”
Riverland consists of thirteen new compositions and one remarkable cover, from the pen of bootleg preacher Rev. Will D. Campbell, who spent his life working for equality and racial justice and befriending an oddly endearing group of poets, prophets, and pugilists that included Tom T. Hall, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali. Campbell’s “Mississippi Magic” is the album’s centerpiece, and Campbell’s peculiar sensibility is also explored in “Tom T. and Brother Will,” a song about his friendship with country music’s greatest storyteller.
You’ll also hear about the Great Flood of 1927; the adventures of a traveling mule; the twilight years of legendary keelboat man Mike Fink; a farmer fighting to keep his family’s land; and General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to change the world by taking Vicksburg.
Brace and Cooper have recorded and toured together for a decade. They were Grammy-nominated for producing I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow, which featured greats including Bobby Bare, Duane Eddy, Patty Griffin, Jim Lauderdale, and Buddy Miller.
Thomm Jutz has worked with Brace and Cooper for the better part of a decade. Riverland is the second trio release for the . . . well, the trio . . . following 2017’s critically acclaimed popular failure Profiles in Courage, Frailty, and Discomfort.
Brace began his musical career in Washington D.C., where he wrote for the Washington Post and led the roots-rock band Last Train Home. He now keeps busy running Red Beet Records and making music.
Cooper spent 14 years writing for the Nashville Tennessean. He is now the senior director, producer, and writer for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He has worked, often in conjunction with Brace and Jutz, with Tom T. Hall, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Mac Wiseman, and whoever your favorite performer is unless they are Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.
Thomm Jutz grew up in Germany and went on to become the single most successful ex-German songwriter in the history of bluegrass music. Seriously, and for real. He has written #1 bluegrass hits for Chris Jones, Terry Baucom, Mac Wiseman, and others, and is regarded (correctly) as a master of the acoustic guitar. He has been twice nominated as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Songwriter of the Year. And, damn it, he lost both times.
Riverland finds Brace, Cooper, and Jutz playing with bass honcho Mark Fain, drumming genius Lynn Williams, fiddle thrush Tammy Rogers, banjo masters Justin Moses and Terry Baucom, and mandolin man Mike Compton.
We could tell you that this is an album worth hearing, but that would be presumptuous and prescriptive. This is an album of songs about a fascinating place, written and performed by people who are fascinated by that fascinating place.
Riverland is rich and common ground.