By the time musicians have been in a band together for 40 years, they’ve figured a few things out. That’s the case with old-time outfit The Midnight Plowboys — a group of native Western North Carolinians who’ve been honing their craft for four decades. Actually, fiddle player Emma McDowell Best wasn’t even born when the group, led by guitarist Brian Hunter, originally formed. But Best’s delicate playing and cool, clear voice is a welcome addition.
At a sold-out dinner show in the Isis Restaurant & Music Hall lounge, the quintet gave a kind of tour of historic songs, old favorites, local musical history, and plenty of stage banter. On the Charlie Poole spiritual, “Outshine the Sun,” Laura Boosinger sang lead and played clawhammer banjo. Three-part harmonies elevated the song, and Mike Hunter’s mandolin was tasteful and swift.
The Midnight Plowboys make it look easy, though there’s nothing simple about the nimble picking and weaving together of melodies and solo licks that go into each offering. On the Civil War-era song “Letter from Down the Road” (Boosinger noted they changed words to make it into a love song), the fiddle was soft and atmospheric, the verses underscored by rhythmic playing, and flourishes came only between the verses, allowing the lyrics room to breathe.
Brian sang lead on the Stanley Brothers’ tune, “Carolina Mountain Home,” noting that even though the song originated in Virginia, it was a good fit for the band’s repertoire. Another apt choice was “Going to Italy,” a song collected in Jackson County by mountain minstrel Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Boosinger led it with a tight banjo part, the other musicians filling in like a kitchen full of top chefs who can chop and fillet without breaking a sweat. The ease with which this group plays makes them all that much more enjoyable to watch.
While the band certainly brought power — Mike’s mandolin playing was fleet and captivating; stand-up bassist Robert Reeves provided a solid foundation — they managed to pack festival-ready fun into quiet dynamics that are right at home in a supper club. And, proving any one of the Midnight Plowboys could front the group, Reeves took a turn singing lead on “Long Black Veil.” The song, though slow and dark, was tempered by the pluckiness of the stringed instruments.
Even spookier was the band’s version of “Sweet Sunny South.” It was the first time the group had played the Civil War-era song onstage, but because it’s steeped in history and composed for acoustic instruments, they made it their own.
Standouts from the show included “Nobody’s Darlin’ but Mine,” a delicate waltz featuring Mike on mandolin. His tremolos added to the romantic candlelit feel of the song. And on a stylish rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” Best sang lead. Though an excellent harmonizer throughout the performance, Best’s upper register was strong and emotive and deserving of the spotlight.
Then again, this is a band that knows how to underscore its player’s talents and — despite sibling-like bantering (Mike and Brian actually are siblings) — the sense of both fun and professionalism is palpable.