Mandolin Orange: New Traditionalists


Mandolin Orange both honors and revises Southern traditions on This Side Of Jordan

Hours after Barack Obama took his oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, Carrboro, N.C., burrito joint Armadillo Grill hosted an old-time music jam. These sorts of events aren’t uncommon in artist-friendly Carrboro, a close neighbor to the more expensive Chapel Hill. For all the left-leaning bumper stickers, it’s still North Carolina.

That night, Andrew Marlin, a self-taught guitarist, found a complement and foil in Emily Frantz, a well-studied fiddler. The collaboration that started then quickly adopted the name Mandolin Orange, and the duo’s debut, Quiet Little Room, arrived in 2010

“We’ve always been inspired by the old stuff,” says Marlin. “Learning these old tunes and playing these old tunes, they’ve been around for so long because the songs themselves are very strong. Lyrically, melodically, structurally speaking, they’re just strong tunes.”

That attention to craft was apparent early on in Mandolin Orange’s fusion of gospel, bluegrass, folk and country into elegant heartbreak ballads. In 2011, the band added a plugged-in rhythm section to half of its sophomore double album, Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger. Released together, but unquestionably distinct, Haste Make’s full-band approach is rife with energy, while Hard Hearted Stranger’s spare duo arrangements retain the first effort’s folksy intimacy.

But on its third album, the magnificent This Side Of Jordan (Yep Roc), Mandolin Orange offers both. It surges with a full band’s depth without sacrificing any of the front-porch closeness or weary sincerity. It’s no coincidence that it’s also Mandolin Orange’s most pointed album, lyrically.

“The subject matter will always be inspired by the times you happen to be a part of,” says Marlin. “You can’t write a tune just like you would write it a hundred years ago.”

To wit, This Side Of Jordan is littered with temporal signifiers, both personal and political. The acceptance of mortality on “Turtle Dove And The Crow” was inspired by Marlin’s brush with death after falling off a dam. With a line lifted from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Marlin accepts the inevitable, singing, “Life’s an old woodpecker/And I’m an old chunk of wood.” On “Hey Adam,” the duo—an offstage couple, as well—advocates for marriage equality through a Biblical lens. “Our Father loves you all ways,” Marlin and Frantz sing together.

In their progressive reinterpretations of the South’s traditions, Mandolin Orange is in good company. Mount Moriah and Hiss Golden Messenger have used their folk-rock variations as a vehicle for spiritual interrogation, while North Carolina’s biggest stars, the Avett Brothers, have espoused an inclusive take on down-home sentimentality.

“I don’t know that we’re consciously trying to be part of a movement, but I’d love to hear that other people are doing that,” says Marlin. “These are modern times … I’d like to think that people are taking these old themes and making them work for this time.”

As America suffers a cultural identity crisis after electing its first minority president, as the South—North Carolina included—reels from radical, reactionary, conservative state government, it’s nice to hear that our artists are actively searching for ways to honor the past and reshape the future.

—Bryan C. Reed