“Rebuild the system, reclaim the power,” raps Philadelphia artist R-SON the Voice of Reason on Gangstagrass’ cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” “If this land is yours, it’s certainly ours.”
Gangstagrass is a rising bluegrass/hip-hop fusion collective, best known for contributing the theme song to FX’s Justified. On “Your Land,” they join forces with upstart Oklahoma R&B singer Branjae, who delivers Guthrie’s original lyrics alongside brand-new rapped verses from R-SON and Dolio the Sleuth.
Plenty of groups have reimagined Guthrie’s standard in recent decades, from Chicano Batman to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. But with its processed banjo, record scratches, and verses that address some of Guthrie’s historical blind spots (“Assume the land is yours, but also take the blame/For native blood spilled/Tribes that fell ill”), Gangstagrass offers a most welcome renovation of the folkie national anthem.
If Lil Nas X proved last year that country music can be delivered via a hip-hop framework with “Old Town Road,” Gangstagrass takes the opposite tack, delivering early Nineties-influenced rap through a bluegrass framework. Gangstagrass’ old-school hip-hop influences paradoxically makes the group run the risk as coming across as dated to an audience fluent in trap, but in a genre as musically conservative as bluegrass, the band’s very premise is proof of its own potency.
In the past year alone, Gangstagrass have smuggled hip-hop onto acoustic music institutions as varied as Nashville’s Station Inn (a first) and New York’s Town Hall, where they performed “Your Land” as part of a Woody Guthrie tribute concert. That night in New York, Gangstagrass’ Dolio the Sleuth summed up his group’s cover with a question posed towards the end of his verse: “Will your grandkids find a better place in this land?”
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