By Ryan Evans
Nov. 1, 2018
The general store with the Royal Crown Cola sign at the rural Kentucky crossroads of Ebenezer is long gone, but Lincoln’s Rachel Mulcahy-Lowe is keeping the colorful history of her family, rooted in that area around Muhlenberg County, alive.
Mulcahy-Lowe, also known as Miss Katie Rae, is the lead vocalist and guitarist for Aunt Bunnie’s Parlor. The Lincoln’s band’s first album, Hand Me Down Child, will be released this Saturday at 1867 Bar, 101 N. 14th St., and is full of songs that draw on her kindred lore.
“I’ve been sort of one of the family historians in the clan for a while now,” she said. “We have such interesting stories.”
A front-row seat to a young Merle Travis learning guitar. Parties with Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl. Steadfast pride in work and labor unions. Raising a family in coal country. Many true tales like these provided the inspiration for Aunt Bunnie’s Parlor mandolinist and guitarist CA Waller, who wrote most of the material on the record and also happens to be married to Miss Katie Rae.
“I’ve dragged him to a few family reunions,” she said. “We were steeped in those stories and, taking him to some of those reunions, he became a little bit obsessed as well.”
Even the band’s name comes from that history. The real Aunt Bunnie — the second-youngest sister of Mulcahy-Lowe’s father — was born in the late 1890s and donated some of the land she owned at the Ebenezer crossroads to a monument built for Travis in the 1950s.
“Merle and (Aunt Bunnie’s) son, Carl, grew up together and Merle learned to play guitar sitting out in front of her little general store listening to a couple of guys named Mose Rager and Ike Everly,” Mulcahy-Lowe said.
It’s no wonder the rich slice of Americana that is Mulcahy-Lowe’s family history has inspired this project that brings together four veteran Lincoln musicians. She and Waller are joined in Aunt Bunnie’s Parlor by Jenny Richardson on bass and Terry Keefe on mandolin and fiddle. The quartet’s deep appreciation for American roots music is evident in their sound that blends country and string band music with blues and gospel.
Listen to an interview with Miss Katie Rae by Ryan Evans from KZUM’s Tree with Roots program on Oct. 31, 2018:
“Two Screen Doors” is an upbeat old-time tune that is the perfect opener for Hand Me Down World, putting the listener inside the narrow, dusty confines of a probably cramped, yet cozy, shotgun shack that just feels like home — “a place to hang my hat,” as Mulcahy-Lowe sings.
Next up, the emotional “Little Girl Lost” is beautiful, catchy and heartbreaking. “I am my father’s daughter/I am my mother’s grief/And I am a little girl lost,” sings Mulcahy-Lowe, who said she cried the first time she read Waller’s lyrics. Her father was 59 years old, 20 years her mother’s senior, and died when Mulcahy-Lowe was only 12.
“A lot of that is a little girl trying to recapture that relationship with her father that disappeared before she really got to know him as an adult,” she said, noting that she was sure her mother was struggling as well. “I think that’s really what it’s about, you know, this mama was grumpy … of course she was grumpy. She was at home with a 12-year-old and had lost everything.”
Mulcahy-Lowe’s delivery on the album’s ballads, like the longing “The Day After Mardi Gras” and the gentle “Push and Pull Heart,” infuse more layers of emotion, as if she has lived these songs herself.
Waller takes lead vocal duties on another standout track, “Right to Work,” a very moving union song. That labor theme comes up again in “Royal Crown Cola Sign,” a song that tells of Aunt Bunnie’s real-life brother Walter and the true story of a deadly encounter one local scab had near the Ebenezer general store. Here again, the people and places in Mulcahy-Lowe’s lineage play a central role.
The entire record excels at offering a strong sense of place to the listener, which is especially true on “Old Hebron,” a sepia-toned song that could be a sequel to John Prine’s “Paradise.” A couple of miles from the four corners of Ebenezer in Muhlenberg County, according to Mulcahy-Lowe, Old Hebron was an actual place where her family would attend church and hold big reunions. She sings of the Kentucky landscape, dotted by mines and poverty, yet flowing with love and gratitude.
Hand Me Down Child features two covers that are particular treats for Lincoln music fans, in John Walker’s “Child of God” and “Hole in Your Heart,” penned by Gerardo Meza. Alongside these gems, the album boasts an impressive 14 original songs — many of which sound far older than they are.
“Pay for This Stuff” is a fun, jaunty blues that brings Bessie Smith to mind. “One Man’s Skillet” is a great tune that would sound right at home in Jimmie Rodgers’ songbook. And the album closers — the fiddle-laced work song, “Push Bill Forgy” and the harmony-filled gospel of “Ebenezer” — are two numbers that cement it as an enjoyable and meaningful survey of American roots music.
Hand Me Down Child stands out as a record of story songs written and performed by people who have had their ears to the soil for years, coming up to share what the earth has told them. This is front porch music that channels history while not sounding stale for a beat. The members of Aunt Bunnie’s Parlor have shown that they embrace the wonderful cross-section of roots music and their dedication to keeping it alive and relevant for modern audiences shines on this album. It’s honest, entertaining, heartfelt and a joy to listen to.