Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles: Keys | ★★★★ [Drag City; Apr. 9]

In some ways, it’s really easy to write about a record of gamboling acoustic tunes like the ones Chicagoan Bill MacKay and Durhamite Nathan Bowles unspool in their new album, Keys.

The metaphors are all there: Travel, rolling hills, a connection to some kind of mythical folk past. Heck, the two even have a song called “Joyride” that is all those things and then some. Its five sun-soaked minutes are positively ebullient, built around a droning claw-hammer riff in Bowles’s banjo intercut with ricocheting guitar lines in MacKay’s guitar.

After a few tension-building chord changes, they settle back into a loose jam and let things amble as some piano squiggles dance in the background.

It’s somehow a near-perfect sonic encapsulation of the moment when, driving through the mountains, you crest a hill just in time to see the sunset over a tree-filled valley. It feels designed for the moment when spring eases into summer.

But there is more to this album than those easy, runaway metaphors suggest. Both Bowles and MacKay are master improvisers—Bowles with the post-everything group, Pelt, amongst numerous others, MacKay with the experimental rockers Darts & Arrows—alongside their love of folk music.

That depth shows. It’s hiding in the organ drone which colors the album-opening “Idumea,” draping their stately, bending interpretation of this already-portentous shape note song with extra hues.

Or in the acid-jazz feel of “Truth,” whose winding chord progressions are worthy of anything off a Tim Buckley or Ryley Walker (with whom MacKay has collaborated often) album. I was struck by the tension between Bowles’s alternating banjo notes and MacKay’s thundering guitar chords aided by some more subtle piano work from Bowles.

Those two threads come together in “Late for Your Funeral Again.” MacKay’s lyrics draw upon seemingly timeless nature imagery—“Let’s turn back to the stars, my friend / The mountain’s tired of us now”—and gritty determination to paint a portrait of loss that’s all too contemporary.

As the guitar and banjo gently chug along, they seem to put a little extra emphasis on the sound of picks hitting strings, as if inking the song with extra thick outlines.

It’s that attention to detail that makes every song here sparkle and, along the way, freshens up all the stories that folk music always wants to tell.

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