Magnolia Mountain - Nothing As It Was
by Gary Whitehouse
Mark Utley, a former rocker from Cincinnati, has gone rootsy with his current band, Magnolia Mountain. Their debut disc Nothing As It Was is a warm, likeable collection of Americana that combines country, folk and bluegrass sounds.
This is heartland music at its best, expressed in honest lyrics and solid musicianship. Utley sings the lead vocals in an approachable baritone, and he's backed by a big group of musicians on mostly acoustic instruments, with a touches of electric guitar, Hawaiian steel guitar and organ.
In his bio on the Magnolia Mountain website Utley says he didn't used to think very highly of his rural roots. "But like many others, age and experience (particularly the experience of raising children) have given me a different vantage point on life. These days I am more interested in who I am than in who I am not. I have actively sought out my roots, from my ancestors in Ireland, Scotland, and England, through their time in Appalachia and out into the farms, towns, and cities of the midwest and the south, and I have found a sense of pride, humility and grounding there."
Those Celtic and Appalachian roots find their expression particularly in the third song here, "Irish Maggie." It kicks off with a sweet fiddle intro, very Irish-Appalachian sounding; some accordion is added and some mandolin, then the tempo picks up a bit, the dobro kicks in and it's a full-blown country song, but still with that Irish lilt as befits the subject matter.
Throughout, the instrumentation, arrangements and tempo fit the subject matter in like manner. "Nora Mae" is a mid-tempo song with brushed snares from Matt Frazer, more dobro from Rockne Riddlebargber, and a touch of electric guitar from Jordan Neff, who elsewhere contributes accordion and other keyboards. "A Little South of Birmingham" is even more up-tempo, with a railroad shuffle beat and lovely harmony vocals from Melissa English.
This kind of music used to be called country & western, and it's songs like "Beautiful Mirage" and "Murder on My Soul" with their Hawaiian steel, harmonica and such that could still be called that. "Little Wildflower" is a bluegrass-style love song with a beautiful multi-part harmony vocal introduction; "Autumn Rose" is a jaunty, bluesy swinging country song; "Out of My Mind" is a slow honky-tonk weeper with piano and fiddle; and "Annelise" tugs at the heart strings with Appalachian-style harmonies before it turns into a country-rocker complete with organ from Neff -- it's one of those "devil woman" songs in which the fellow is telling her to leave him alone but doesn't really mean it.
Mostly these are sweet love songs of the country kind, and they tend toward understatement. Local independent musicians like this deserve all the support we can give them these days. -- Green Man Review, April 2, 2009
Reviewed by Maurice Hope
Music of the Appalachian hills flavoured with a slice or two of urban folk, plus a nod towards their forebears from the other side of the Atlantic.
Fronted by lead vocalist Mark Utley, Cincinnati, Ohio based Magnolia Mountain is a seven-piece mainly acoustic band that keep it simple, and at the same time, innovative.
On merging country, folk, Celtic and bluegrass into their music --the entertainment is never finer than when, after a brief a cappella beginning they deliver `Little Wildflower'. A superb country offering possessing fine electric lead guitar and Dobro, Utley not only shines on lead vocals but the pickers play with a great freedom as they likewise do on the dobro (Rockne Riddlebarger) fired `A Little South Of Birmingham' and `Nora Mae' -- that speaks of separated love and how the lure of Dixie holds strong.
`Irish Maggie' pretty much speaks for itself, and with mandolin, fiddle (best heard on the soul searching intro), Hammond organ and Dobro put to good use the music transcends America and Ireland. Prompted by a chugging rhythm, Utley and Co are in unstoppable form.
[T]he album regains impetus on `Autumn Rose'. Warmed in lead guitar, mandolin and a fine shuffling rhythm, seamless vocal harmonies and a sprinkling banjo it finds MM near their best.
`Annelise' takes the listener down into the southern states, Louisiana maybe --such the moody presentation and impressive vocal assists from Melissa English. -- Americana UK, July 31, 2009
Reviewed by Mike Breen
Though known for a wide-range of musical styles, Greater Cincinnati has always had an especially strong Americana/ Roots music scene, as evidenced each year by the stacked lineup at the annual Rivertown Breakdown showcase. With the release of Nothing As It Was, Mark Utley and his band Magnolia Mountain should instantly jump to the top of any list of Cincinnati's best Roots practitioners.
Nothing As It Was -- to be released in conjunction with a MM show Saturday at the Southgate House with guests The Tillers and Kim Taylor -- is soulful, haunting and pure, taking the best of Country, Folk and Bluegrass and refracting it through a modern prism. It rings incredibly authentic and timeless, an album that could have come out 40, 30 or 20 years ago but is too lively and crafty to stand as some sort of retro-music museum piece.
The "Roots" being spread around on Nothing are wide-reaching -- "Irish Maggie" strides and jigs like a vintage Celtic Folk song, while the highlight, "Out of My Mind," has the sad, earnest feel of a great George Jones love lament.
Most startling and appealing is when Utley and Co. create something that transcends any genre. "Murder on My Soul," while perhaps designed with "murder ballad" intent, is a hovering, spooky slice of ethereal soul-searching that recalls the ghostly Indie Folk of artists like Midlake and Fleet Foxes.
Nothing As It Was announces Mark Utley as one of the finest songwriters in the area. He and the amazing band he's assembled have a knack for crafting something that is both traditional and refreshing. Fans of Roots music old and new will find Magnolia Mountain's latest one of the more enchanting albums they'll hear all year.
-- CityBeat, February 18, 2009