By John Dunn
Times Record (Fort Smith, AR) • [email protected] • http://www.swtimes.com/
Unlike its country cousin, bluegrass has more clearly defined parameters that have kept it largely unaltered for seven decades.
That’s not to say bluegrass is a stagnant genre. Because its borders have not been breached by outside forces (i.e., pop music, fads, marketing trends) as country music’s walls have been, doesn’t mean bluegrass is stuck in a sepia-toned yesteryear. On the contrary, bluegrass, much like jazz (also an acquired taste for many), remains dynamic and ever-evolving. It’s as open today to experimentation (within reason) as when the Osborne Brothers featured drums and electric instruments on their 1968 top-40 recording of “Rocky Top.” Shortly thereafter, “newgrass” pioneers – like New Grass Revival – borrowed heavily from rock, jazz and blues for their repertoires, without losing traditional bluegrass’ driving, high, lonesome sound.
Count The Infamous Stringdusters and The Grascals among contemporary bluegrass bands that pay homage to bluegrass’ roots and craftily push the envelope without bursting the bluegrass bubble. The Stringdusters’ third disc, “Things That Fly,” is an ambitious work that attempts to broaden the band’s scope with a strong dose of progressivism.
With co-producer/engineer Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Dixie Chicks, Nickel Creek) blurring the edges by splashing the tracks with reverb, giving “Things That Fly” a lush sound that neither detracts from the band’s passionate playing nor the vocal performances, The Infamous Stringdusters incorporate doses of smoldering organ (played by guitarist Andy Falco), lap steel (by dobroist Andy Hall) and viola (by fiddler Jeremy Garrett) to spice up their bluegrass dishes. Falco’s restrained keyboard work on the brooding “All the Same” and the introspective jazz-pop of “Masquerade” (with moving vocals by Garrett and guest Aoife Donovan of Crooked Still) keep the cuts from veering into NPR-like pretentiousness.
That’s not to say The Infamous Stringdusters didn’t leave room for some traditional-style barnburners. Country star Dierks Bentley swaps verses with Garrett on a cover of Jody Stecher’s bouncy “17 Cents,” and three instrumentals feature that old-time feeling.
Ironic or not, The Infamous Stringdusters, who cover U2’s “In God’s Country” to admirable effect on “Things That Fly,” kick off the album with “You Can’t Stop the Changes.” While true, hopefully the boys won’t change too much from their auspicious beginnings. Their first album, “Fork in the Road,” netted the band best album, best song and Emerging Artist of the Year awards at the 2007 International Bluegrass Music Association awards.
Hewing closer to traditional sounds than The Infamous Stringdusters, The Grascals sound refreshed and reinvigorated on their fourth album, “The Famous Lefty Flynn’s.” Their uneven third outing, 2008’s “Keep on Walkin,” leaned way too heavily on covers, some uninspired choices, and left the boys in need of a stronger followup.
And “The Famous Lefty Flynn’s” delivers. This time out, the covers are more inspired (check out their take on The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville”) and the trio of Terry Eldredge, Jamie Johnson and Terry Smith keep the vocals firmly rooted in bluegrass. Executing a delicate balancing act, The Grascals deftly honor the past without sounding like museum relics and manage to bring fresh sounds to the genre. The band’s enjoyable duet with Hank Williams Jr. on the Hank Williams Sr.-Bill Monroe co-write, “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” includes the work of steel guitar guru Lloyd Green.
The album also benefits from the work of new band member Kristin Scott Benson, who has performed with Laurie Lewis, IIIrd Tyme Out, Roland White and Rhonda Vincent, among others. She was named Banjo Player of the Year by the IBMA in 2008 and 2009. “The Famous Lefty Flynn’s” just may nab her a third straight nod.
Not all acoustic music falls under the bluegrass umbrella. Sure, any music flavored with banjos, fiddles, dobros, guitars, mandolins and other acoustic instruments sounds bluegrassy enough to share festival stages alongside the likes of The Grascals or Dailey & Vincent, but bands like The Farewell Drifters and Black Prairie bring diverse influences to their acoustic hybrids.
The Farewell Drifters’ national debut, “Yellow Tag Mondays,” is a blend of soaring, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies, 1960s’ progressive folk-pop and instrumental wizardry. Think Nickel Creek, only with five members, all students of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album and – if anything can be gleaned from the disc’s accompanying news release – resistant to being lumped solely into the bluegrass fold. “We’re an Americana band,” the quintet might harmonize. One comfortable enough to sound at home performing at festivals, coffee houses or rock clubs. Just heed the album-closing track, “Somewhere Down the Road.” That’s probably where you’ll be seeing them.
Although the title sounds like another installment of the vampires-and-werewolves “Twilight” series, Black Prairie’s Sugar Hill Records debut, “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon,” is a stunningly successful payoff for The Decemberists’ guitarist Chris Funk, who only wanted to spend more time playing his square-necked dobro guitar. He recruited fellow Decemberists’ Matt Ouery (bass) and Jenny Conlee (accordion), as well as fellow Portland, Ore., musicians Annalisa Tornfelt (violin) and Jon Neufeld (guitar), to form Black Prairie.
In a news release, Funk said the band “bridges the music” of legendary country-rock guitarist and former Byrd Clarence White with that of film composer Ennio Morricone, famous for his “spaghetti” western scores (the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone “No Name” trilogy and “Once Upon a Time in the West”). An empty boast? No, at times, the eclecticism of “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon” does blend the atmospheric qualities of Morricone’s best scores with the instrumental integrity of White.
Black Prairie mixes old-time stringband music and bluegrass with, thanks to Conlee’s accordion and Tornfelt’s violin and vocals, elements of eastern European music like klezmer and gypsy. It’s a unique, engaging stew. Often, the tracks owe more to eastern Europe than the eastern United States.
“Feast of the Hunters’ Moon” is what bluegrass might have sounded like if Bill Monroe had hailed from Transylvania and later settled in Kentucky.
john dunn is a copy editor and page designer for the times record.
For The Record
The Infamous Stringdusters
Title: “Things That Fly”
Label: Sugar Hill Records
Genre: Bluegrass/progressive bluegrass
For The Record
Title: “The Famous Lefty Flynn’s”
Label: Rounder Records
For The Record
The Farewell Drifters
Title: “Yellow Tag Mondays”
Label: Heart Squeeze Records
For The Record
Title: “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon”
Label: Sugar Hill Records