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The Oly Mountain Boys release bluegrass concept album, "White Horse"

The life of Charlie McCarver

The Oly Mountain Boys new bluegrass "concept" album tells the life story of fictional historical early 20th century Northwest character Charlie McCarver. Photo credit: Jim Oas

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Early 20th century life held great promise and jaw-dropping beauty for Charlie McCarver. He and his chatty, young, pregnant wife, Lisa-Ann, built a cabin next to the Pacific Ocean, with greenery and flowers surrounding their home.

"The sun was warm, the birds did sing, and it was spring."

Then the rains came.

"That week on Monday morning it started raining in the mountains / It rained and rained and rained for 40 days."

The weather began to wear on the McCarvers. Charlie couldn't find work in the woods due to the weather. The constant patter on the roof drove Lisa-Ann crazy. They left the cabin and moved into town.

"When I couldn't find a job, I started gambling and a-drinkin' / The damage to my family was very plain. Lisa-Ann will say I turned my back on my own family / But to this day I always blame the rain."

When his marriage unravels and his family leave him, Charlie breaks down, descending into violence, and a life on the run."

"We heard the footsteps from behind / The sun had left us nearly blind. The shots rang out across the land / The gun was smoking in my hand."

Charlie felt cheated out of life. His life was full of regret.

We were both too young, there was nothing to be done / The wind blew us each along our way. But nothing stays with me like the bitter memory / Of the pain that I felt on that day," sings Tye Menser about a fictional man Charlie McCarver, on "Long Ago & Far Way," from The Oly Mountain Boys album, White Horse. "Long ago and far away / I held her hand, it feels like yesterday."

If you like your bluegrass complex, melodic and focused on weighty matters such as the hard life of Washington state living in the early 20th century, have I found something you're going to love. Olympia bluegrass outfit The Oly Mountain Boys has released their new, epic concept album, White Horse, for your consideration. Comprised of Menser (banjo, piano, lead vocals), Derek McSwain (mandolin, vocals), Chris Rutledge (guitar, vocals), Phil Post (bass, dobro, pedal steel, vocals) and Josh Grice (fiddle), The Oly Mountain Boys dwell in the musical (and conceptual) neighborhood inhabited by outfits such as the Who, Tool, Queensryche and the more operatic rock groups.

"It all started when a new song I had written, ‘The Demon Day,' seemed to naturally be a prequel to a previous song I'd written. ‘Six Hours,'" explains Menser on the origin of the White Horse concept album. "People had always asked me about ‘Six Hours' and what the character might be running from, and ‘The Demon Day' seemed to answer that question a little bit. That got me thinking about whether I could string more songs together in a story. Finding a starting point for lyrics is always the hardest part of songwriting for me, so I liked the idea of having a story to help give me ideas for lyrics.  The concept grew from there, over almost three years." 

The album is broken into three parts: "Charlie & Lisa-Ann," Charlie's happiness of youth with his wife and children; "Loneliness & desperation," the years of Charlie's psychological breakdown and turn to crime; "Memory & Regret," when he faces just that in the face of death.

"Once I got started, it became more than a mere songwriting device. I was inspired by the fact that: one ... I was not aware of another full album, narrative bluegrass concept project ever being done, and two ... the idea of rooting it specifically in the Pacific Northwest, since so much traditional bluegrass comes from the South."

Mesner did his homework. He spent long hours in the Washington State Historical Society buildings. He grabbed lyric ideas touring the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

"Some of the phrases from the song "They Cut Down The Trees" are right off museum displays," says Menser.

With a little help from Fred Poyner of the Historical Society, Menser traced early Washington state historical material, double checking names and securing historical photographs shot in western Washington between 1900-1910.

Photographs, you ask?

The 18 songs are bolstered by a 68-page book of lyrics, backstory, diary entries, photographs, artwork, postcards and credits - all published in a beautiful, yet dark companion to the songs. The Oly Mountain Boys elicited 11 writers and one painter who contributed original stories and artwork for the book. The writers and artists worked independently, using the song lyrics and rough mixes for inspiration. It's an appealing and complete package other acts could definitely learn from when releasing their own albums.

"I chose the cover art based on a Wyoming artist's painting," says Menser. Paul Mauer of Euphoria Tea Productions did the layout. Megalodon Multi-Media in Brookings, Oregon, manufactured the box sets. It was a torturous process to get it all done, but it came out pretty well."

Indeed, it did.

I asked Menser why he didn't name the album True Life Blues: The Life of Charlie McCarver?

"White Horse seemed a good symbol for the theme of the album," replies Menser. "If you listen to the album, thematically - it's pretty bleak. A white horse is typically a symbol of strength and power and purity, but in our album it symbolizes inevitable death, which is why I chose the cover art showing that duality: a messy white horse with his evil dark cousin/shadow behind him. Charlie's name came later in the project."

White Horse gallops to traditional bluegrass influenced by the music of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs. The album, The Oly Mountain Boys' fourth, draws from the mildew and forlorn, straight from the Olympic National Forest. This is the best brand of bluegrass: energetic and thoroughly heartbroken. The band studied the aforementioned bluegrass innovators of the '40s and '50s to create its authentic, bygone sound. The banjo and guitars prickle and will have you tapping your feet through the tears of "They Cut Down The Trees," with its seesawing licks and tales of devastation and greed that comes with Pacific Northwest timber harvest. "White Horse II," the last song on the album, will have you dancing a jig as the song fades.

The Olympia Mountain Boys will hold a White Horse release party at the appropriate Rhythm and Rye in downtown Olympia Saturday, Oct. 4, during the Olympia Arts Walk. It performed the album from birth to death, with the writers performing readings last Saturday at the Washington State Coach House, a performance the band would like to re-create in the future. This Saturday, expect many tunes of the new album, as well as favorites from the other three releases.

"Mrs. Zabel, who was taking him a pot of stew for dinner, found Mr. McCarver deceased, alone in his cabin. No one in these parts know the whereabouts of his wife, Lisa-Ann, or their three children."

THE OLY MOUNTAIN BOYS CD RELEASE PARTY, w/ The Hollerbodies, The Warren G. Hardings, 9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 4, Rhythm and Rye, 311 Capitol Way N., Olympia, 360.972.2278

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