It is hard to understand the concept of place without leaving. Even when visiting a place other than your own, it doesn’t have the same impact as when you actively sever the connection with where you’re from. It’s then, when you don’t have a place to call your own, that place becomes so obvious and vital. I’ve been writing and thinking about place recently, so it’s fitting that the bluegrass of Seven Handle Circus‘ Whiskey Stills & Sleeping Pills fell into my lap right now.
“I’ve been around the world just once before/and no one quite knows what we’re fighting for/not anymore,” sings the band on the opener. The conflicted relationship to place permeates the titles of this five-song EP: “I’ve Been Around The World,” “Walking Through the Wilderness,” “Alabama Line,” “Georgia Man,” and “Cruel World” each mention some aspect of travel. “Alabama Line” is my personal favorite, as I’m currently living in the Yellowhammer State. The traditional bluegrass instrumentation (acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, string bass) and group vocals give rise to a jubilant chorus: “Boys, we’re headed south down the Chattahoochee River/ to the Alabama Line!” Rumbling toms and a lively fiddle add extra punch to the tune, turning this from a nice song into a memorable highlight.
“Georgia Man” leans heavily on the fiddle, matching the melancholy lyrics about permanent travel with a buoyant melody and some flashy soloing. “Maybe I’d be fine / working 9 to 5 / but then I’d never find / what it means to be alive,” the vocalist notes; and that’s a tension that goes through every conception of place. If the only way to recognize that we’re in a place is to see it leaving in the rear view mirror, we have few to blame but ourselves: in this late-modern era, rare is it that we are forced to leave our home by someone else. We choose to leave, for adventure or profit or education; our feelings after that are our own responsibility. “Georgia Man” knows this, and that dual focus makes the tune incredible on a lyrical level.
The music itself is worth acclaim; the band can sing and play with the best of them. But in a crowded bluegrass field, it’s not virtuosic playing that wows me (okay, Chris Thile, you still wow me); it’s investing that musical ability with heart, soul and meaning. Seven Handle Circus does this excellently, and that’s what makes this five-song EP worth your time. You’ll sing along too, of course.