Perhaps no body of literature sustains as tragic a view of human existence as the Appalachian ballads of murder and ill-fated love collected by Francis Child during the 19th century. Freakwater, the Louisville string band fronted by Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, drinks as deeply of that fount of tragedy as anybody making records today. Certainly no one within alt-country circles relates rural fatalism and resiliency to contemporary social and political issues with the dry-eyed resolve of principal songwriter Irwin.
Dancing Under Water, Thrill Jockey’s reissue of Freakwater’s 1991 album (originally available on Amoeba, and their second overall) is no exception. The record features only five Irwin originals, but when she and Bean lend their mournful, desperate voices to the timeless material of the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe and Merle Travis, they do so with the authority and conviction of their mountain forebears.
Irwin’s vocals are almost unbearably deep, evoking, of all things, the weary resignation of Johnny Cash. For his part, Cash should consider covering “Scratches on the Door”, the harrowing holiday tale of six children who, sleeping close to the stove to stay warm, die in a house fire while their father, who has locked them inside, is off drinking at a tavern.
Musically, Dancing Under Water finds Freakwater sounding more tentative — and bluegrass-oriented — than they do on their fully realized country albums Feels Like The Third Time and Old Paint. If you haven’t heard those records, start there; eventually, however, it’s worth going back to this one.