You first hear the raw, organic, Americana laced magic in the hoppin’ fiddle and streetcorner percussion that grabs your heart on “Hog Eyed Man,” the exuberant instrumental that launches 5 Miles From Town - the latest full length album from string band sensations The Ebony Hillbillies.
From there, you’ll be captivated by the part vocal/ part instrumental swirl of R&B, bluegrass, country, jazz, folk, what have you that will help you understand how this five man, two women phenomenon - renowned as “The Last String Band in America” – has taken their game from the street corners of NYC to Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the BBC and Good Morning America.
The group is the vision of Harlem born, Queens raised violinist and vocalist Henrique Prince, who could have been a member of a symphony orchestra but decided on another path and mission. His interest in 1930s guitar-fiddle group The Mississippi Sheiks and other legendary string bands sparked his initial interest. Then he met the man who would become his partner in infectious polyrhythmic crime - banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar and singer Norris Washington Bennett - after an audition for an NYC bluegrass band in 2004.
The ensemble grew from there to include such multi-talented greats as Gloria Thomas Gassaway (on vocals and bones) and three time Grammy winning songwriter/bassist William “Salty Bill” Salter. Together they create a joyful noise with echoes of a fascinating past that deeply transcends racial and cultural boundaries.
While it’s great just getting caught up in the infectious fun, the Hillbillies include a few heavier themed slices of social consciousness, including “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” and “I’m on My Way To Brooklyn.” It says a lot about their originals and interpretations of traditional pieces that their cover of the familiar “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” while sultry and enjoyable, is the least essential tune on their set list.