Despite being grounded in images of wild hills and empty hollers, bluegrass has always been a sound of the city — a way for showmen and innovators to incorporate jazz and other new sounds into the songs their country daddies and mamas had taught them. Gangstagrass, the Brooklyn ensemble led by the producer/guitarist Rench, takes the modernity of bluegrass to heart with its blend of traditional music and hip hop. The group gained a loyal following with "Long Hard Times To Come," the theme from the late, great FX noir western Justified, and continues to mix urban rhymes with high ridge riffs on its just-released new album, American Music.
Though rap is its flashy calling card, Gangstagrass has other ways of bringing bluegrass into the future. This version of the 19th-century chestnut "Banks of the Ohio" contributes to a project also recently taken up by American stars like Abigail Washburn and Hurray for the Riff Raff: rewriting a form that traditionally casts women as victims in ways that offer the female spirit revenge, if not justice. This "Banks of the Ohio" is sung in a soulful guest turn by Alexa Dirks of the Canadian band Chic Gamine. With a woman as its murderous protagonist, "Banks of the Ohio" feels personal again — not just another incident of victimizing misogyny, but a desperate account of possessive desire.
The beautiful, witty stop-motion animation video for Gangstagrass's "Banks of the Ohio" was a year in the making. (The song appears on the band's 2014 album Broken Hearts and Stolen Money.) Director Robin Steele, best known for his award-winning MTV Liquid Television feature Stick Figure Theatre, adopts the style of old woodcuts to lend the narrative a look that's both classic and slightly kitschy. Our anti-heroine looks a little bit like an anime character; the beloved target of her knife is a Hollywood cowboy in the style of Raylan Givens. Many subtle twists, from the killer's female jailer to the final visual punch line, distinguish this "Banks of the Ohio" from the countless versions that have come before. Gangstagrass proves to be much more than a novelty act, and a little city thinking refreshes the bluegrass genre once again.