Seventeen years ago, Chicago’s Henhouse Prowlers formed under the foundation of traditional bluegrass mixed with modern influence.
Their innovative use of instrumentation and storytelling allowed their music to blossom well beyond the country’s borders, making a global impact that’s undeniably admirable. While touring has since ceased to exist in the past year, the band – made up of Chris Dollar (guitar and lead vocal); Jon Goldfine (bass and vocals); Jake Howard (mandolin and vocals); and Ben Wright (banjo and vocals) – have spent their time writing, recording, and preparing to release their seventh studio album, The Departure.
And it delivers in spades.
The record opens with “Rich Man’s Dream”, an uptempo foot-stomper of a tune that sheds light on the irony of how wealthy people glamorize the lives of struggling musicians. “Favorite Country Song” is sung in an effort to cheer up a listener dealing with heartbreak, persuading them to suppress their grief through a vibrant singalong chorus meant to turn any frown upside down. Displaying beautiful harmonies that live throughout the album in its entirety, “Wishing Well” focuses on the reality that our troubles can’t simply be wished away, as ideal as that would be. “Time Poorly Spent” harbors a waltz-like rhythm, dancing in deep regret for a failed relationship’s existence, wanting to turn back time so as not to make the mistake of starting the affair in the first place.
If you’re a first-time listener of the group, or not too familiar with bluegrass, you might notice the lack of drums in their songs. It’s simply unneeded (and non-traditional for the genre), for the band’s compositions are so expertly crafted that you never feel a drummer’s absence. Instead, this album puts a major spotlight on the banjo and mandolin, featuring numerous solos on a myriad of tracks, submersed in impeccable intricacy.
This includes the dramatic title track, “The Departure,” which not only highlights the instruments but also Dollar’s superb vocal chops, whereas the sweetly radiant “Little Rose” follows the opportunity to marry the one you love. In contrast, their second single and the charmingly melancholic “Heartbreak and Devastation” provides several instrumental showcases while following the loss of a wife to someone new. It’s a rather it-is-what-it-is attitude that somehow makes you smile in spite of the song’s theme.
The Henhouse Prowlers have a knack for visually stimulating lyrics, illustrating each tale in such avid detail and clarity, like in the album’s lead single, “Short Branch Saloon”, where they tell the deadly story of an attempt to stop a robbery gone wrong, or in “Lining Up”, where the track transitions between a swinging, fast-paced beat and a dragging, hunkered swagger, bitterly reccounting a foolish pursuit for a known heartbreaker. The melody of “Me & My Travelin’ Gal” embodies a classic 60’s persona, a delightful tune narrating a joyful expedition across the country.
“Jane Addams” is an ode to the progressive social reformer and activist, specifically detailing her compassionate work for the poor and homeless. It’s no surprise that the group has dedicated a song to an individual like her, for The Henhouse Prowlers have done their own share of social work by way of their non-profit mission Bluegrass Ambassadors, a music education outreach program designed to dissolve the boundaries of culture, country, and communication to schoolchildren as well as festival goers. It’s a super cool initiative that further conveys how greatly the quartet values the universally impactful potential of folk and bluegrass music, bringing people together through the beauty of sound.
The band made sure to include songs in their album that solely concentrated on the harmonies and the musicianship, too. In “Dawg Eat Dawg World” the instruments are completely front and center, showing off each member’s insane talents, ever the more impressive (as if it were possible not to be blown away by this point). Here, they prove that you can just as easily tell a story through precision finger pickin’ as you can through your mouth.
Then you have “Gospel In Review”, a harmonious a capella rendition that, with subtle satire, recalls Jesus’s true viewpoints, without the misconstrued influence of biased and prejudiced followers. “If we all just take a moment to remember what is best/ We are all just human beings/ No one’s better than the rest,” they conclude with grace and respect, reminding us the real importance of the human experience for Christians and Non-Christians alike.
Overall, the Henhouse Prowlers can’t miss with this new record, and the bluegrass community is lucky to have their dedicated contributions through their well-honed sound and philanthropic initiatives. There’s no question the band knows what they’re doing, and they know how to do it not well, but exceptionally. Thoroughly entertaining, The Departure is worth all the praise from their amusing anecdotes, to their outstanding compositions, to their captivating storytelling lyrics.
The Henhouse Prowlers will be celebrating the release of The Departure at City Winery Chicago Memorial Day weekend, along with their debut at Nashville’s historic Station Inn June 4th, only to headline The John Hartford Memorial Festival the very next day- needless to say they’ll be staying busy.
Be sure to keep these guys on your radar, and keep an eye out for them in your town in the months to come.