Thursday, April 22, 2010

"On The Brink of a Dream" by Mark "Brink" Brinkman - CD Review

Mark “Brink” Brinkman has been writing songs most of his life, but putting a collection of them together with a first rate band as a stand-alone CD has been a dream of his life. That dream is realized in “On the Brink of a Dream,” which has just been released.  Over the last ten years, nearly 150 of his songs have been recorded by a variety of performers including Larry Sparks, Don Rigsby, The Kruger Brothers, Lou Reid & Carolina, Pine Mountain Railroad, Grasstowne, and many others.  The present collection includes sixteen songs, seven of which have been previously recorded while nine are new or being recorded for the first time.  The CD serves a dual purpose, showcasing Brink’s breadth of vision and talent while serving as a demo recording for artists looking for great songs.  Here’s a rundown of the songs, but you should purchase the CD and give it a listen for yourself.

1. The opening number in the CD is a lilting bluegrass song opening with a banjo kick-off by Justin Moses. The song captures one of the most prominent themes in bluegrass music, the longing for the simple life of the south experienced by the men (and women) who leave their country homes for the greater opportunities of the city only to find they’ve lost something important within themselves that can only be made whole by returning to their roots.  “and the Tennessee backroads…in the shadow of the pines/ I long to walk that old dirt road…where the river winds/ Tennessee backroads…no place I’d rather be…walkin’ down the backroads…in the hills of Tennessee.” Brink’s comfortable baritone voice works very well in his own songs along with the harmony vocals by Steve Gulley, who also produced the album at his studio in Cumberland Gap.

2.” I wonder how things got so complicated/You know, it’s hard to find a good old Barlow knife/I’d love to throw computers out the window/Go back to Grandpa’s way of life.” This song reflects on “Grandpa’s Way of Life, the good old days that may never have been for those who were living it, but looks good in retrospect as we live the complex life of contemporary Americans.  The song is well written and bouncy, but creates a world of the not so distant past that each generation has longed for.  I’m actually not so sure that such reminiscence doesn’t serve to create some of the angst we feel today.  Instead of  living life in the present, we romanticize an earlier and, supposedly better, life.  As a representative of this musical theme, I prefer this song to either David Peterson’s “1946” or Larry Sparks’ “1949” but continue to look for the great bluegrass song about how great growing up in the suburban world of Little League and cruising at the Dairy Queen were.

3. “The Old Coal Mine”  reflects on the difficult life of coal miners, and, like other songs in this collection, captures well a major theme of bluegrass and country music.  The darkness of the mine captures a darkness in the soul that the gritty, dangerous work represents.  As so often happens in good bluegrass songs, the suniness of the music belies the darkness of the themes: black lung, inhumane treatment, and constant danger have always been the lot of those who dig the coal.  The song itself suggests a ray of hope that never reaches into the depths of the mines.  The singer recognizes this when he sings, “I’ll never leave this minin’ town, my whole life is underground” sings the narrator, and what he sings is the truth for too many.

4.  Three time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, Dale Ann Bradley and Brink swap leads in “The Littlest Guardian Angels” with a spare and restrained bass, mandolin chop, and fiddle backing, Nothing is sadder than children dying before their parents, and this song effectively captures the sense of loss as well as the eternal hope that their souls create a direct link to the eternal for those left behind.  “They’re the littlest guardian angels/ Watching over the ones they love/ One hand reaches down from heaven/ While the other holds the hand of God.”  The powerful image of this connection takes this lost child song to a higher level than it often manages.  A strength of Brinkman’s writing in mostly traditional genres is his ability recognize the difference between sentiment and sentimentality and to avoid the latter.

5. “Beyond the Rain” is a gentle gospel song Brink sings accompanied by his own piano playing. Beyond the rain…there’ll be no more dyin’/No more cryin…no more pain/ When we put our lives…in the hands of Jesus/ He will lead us…Beyond the rain. The understated harmony contributed by Dale Ann Bradley perfectly compliments the understated and simple faith expressed in this song.  There’s no reason to excuse the use of the piano here, as this isn’t strictly a bluegrass album, but beyond that, it works for the quiet song of faith.

6. From Alan Bibey’s haunting mandolin kickoff of “Bluestone Mountain” a listener knows that a murder song  is on the way, but Brink provides a twist to his story that elevates this song to another leve.   Cora Jones, widowed during the Civil War, lives on Bluestone Mountain with her “little blond-haired” son Jacob, who wanders away one day and gets lost in a cave.  Cora goes off in search of him, and neither is ever heard from again, except for Cora’s crying in the winds.
7. Dale Ann Bradley also joins Brink on “With Love from Normandy,” a tribute to soldiers who have died in service to their country.  The story song tells of coming across a “wrinkled uniform and some old brown army sox.” The attention to the details of the socks lovingly set the scene for the discovery of a letter postmarked “Normandy 1944” written by his grandpa the day before he died.  By focusing effectively on one person in a war now increasingly distantly in the past for most Americans, Brinkman captures loss, remembrance, and the nature of sacrifice made out of love of country.  The escapes bathos as it communicates without self-pity or excessive drama the sacrifice of love. 

8. “Lucius Gray” is a story song and a mining song, taking place in the midst of a mine disaster.  It tells the story of Lucius, “the meanest man to ever work down in the mine/If you valued your existence, you’d stay out of his way.”  Lucius and the singer are down in the mine, when “there was a crack like thunder, and the walls came crashing down.”  Lucius, of course, sacrifices his life for the story teller, who survives to “embrace my wife and family” as well as to tell the tale.  The song has exceptional drive and power, carried along by the conviction in Brink’s singing and the conviction in the story.  Mining songs rarely end on a hopeful note, but “Lucius Gray” is a remarkable exception.
9. Brink has written many gospel songs, including “From the 3rd Day On,” an Easter song which offers hope and the promise of forgiveness as told in the story of the crucifiction and resurrection of Jesus.  The message of the song, as usual with Brink’s songs, is strong and well supported by the instrumentation.  Telling the story in terms of the three days from Good Friday to Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning, Brink captures both the despair and the enduring promise of this event as well as contrasting the lives of believers living in the first or second day with those of believers who put their faith in the time “From the 3rd Day On.”

10.  “Carolina Dust” tells the story of  “a stubborn old man at ninety-eight/ a poundin’ hard on heaven’s gate.” A new song (2009) it captures the hard life of a farmer who has a love-hate relationship with his hard scrabble existence he claims others won’t understand.  Regardless, his strength and pride show through in every note.  Justin Moses’ driving banjo captures the difficulty of the singer’s life, while on fiddle he shows the last moments. This song should soon be picked up and sung by a band looking for a good story song.

11. “She’s a Stranger in his Mind” is a fine example of a theme that’s become all too common of late, the pain and loss of losing a loved one still alive but suffering from Alzheimer’s.   While Brink manages to really pull the heart strings on this one, he also tells the story in such a way as to evoke emotion without ever cheapening it. “She’s a stranger in his mind…the memories are gone, but his heart’s still keeping time/ The cruelest fate for the loved ones left behind/ How can life be so unkind?/She’s a stranger in his mind. Again, accompanying himself on the piano, the song captures a life lived together and the difficult ending moments that steal away the mind and spirit of too many people.

12.  A strong lilt of faith, hope, and love pervade “Mama Loved the Redbirds,” a reminiscence of a mother’s love of nature as represented by the redbirds.  Alan Bibey’s mandolin solo captures the flittering and liveliness of the birds as Mama gives each bird a name and promises that after her death she’ll send a redbird to tell everyone she’s in Heaven.  The promise is fulfilled at her burial, in this solid piece of work.

13. The power of Love shines through each verse of “In Your Love.” Steve Gulley provides wonderfully supportive harmony vocals on this track, as he does on many of the songs in the album.  “It’s your love…keeps my heart beating/It’s your love…keeps me breathing/ If you were gone…I couldn’t stop the bleeding/I won’t stop believin’…in your love.” An interesting aspect of this paean to love is that the lyric is completely without gender, suitable for any singer, male of female.
14. I don’t usually cry when I hear a song for the first time, but “He Never Went Away” hit me right in the heart.  A love song, accompanied by solo piano, but which would work as beautifully with guitar, the story tells of a couple who’ve never “over fifty years together/ They’d never spent one night apart.” The husband “leaves” and the woman spends the rest of her life, sending herself a short note “­writing from his heart,” mailing it to herself  so she gets a letter every day. Her loneliness combined with the faith that they’ll be reunited is surely rewarded in this most rewarding of songs.
15. “Good Eatin’ on the Farm” follows a day on the farm through the country meals Mama serves.  Anyone who loves good country cookin’ will salivate while listening to this happy song.  Maybe writing at 5:30 in the morning had this effect, but it sure made me hungry.  The final stanza, putting the family to bed, links the daily eating to the story and evening devotions.  “mmm…mmmmm…My…My!”
16. Fittingly, “On the Brink of a Dream” concludes with a final gospel song called “I Am Unworthy.”  It expresses in quiet singing the simple faith of a believer who knows “The Savior has paid our every cost/ Thanks God the ground is level/ At the foot of Jesus’ cross.”  
The ebb and flow of the songs in this collection almost demand that it be listened to straight through, not on shuffle, not as part of an iPod playlist, but song-by-song, in order.  It would be a shame to lose the continuity of theme, melody, instrumentation, and thoughtfulness that have gone into producing this CD.  Brink Brinkman and producder Steve Gulley have achieved and accomplishment that deserves thoughtful and focused attention to the individual parts as well as the total effect.  The band supporting Brinkman for this recording includes: Alan Bibey – mandolin; Dale Ann Bradley - harmony and lead vocals; Steve Gulley – harmony vocals; Tim Stafford – guitar; Justin Moses – Banjo, Fiddle, and Resophonic Guitar; Jamey Booher – Bass; Tyler Williams – harmony vocals.

Mark Brinkman’s world, as reflected in his songs, remains essentially sunny and optimistic even while tinged with the more enobling elements of loss. His songs are suffused with hope and faith in God and the goodness of others.  His characters, for characters they are, continue to find hope in the sometimes drab world they inhabit and to rely on their memory and heritage to keep them headed in the right direction.  The CD is available through Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes and other outlets for download or as a disk.  Regardless of the format, I recommend purchasing this entire collection.