During the glory days of bluegrass music it was not uncommon
for bands to play a Saturday night bar gig till the wee hours and then do a
church show early Sunday morning. Of course the Sunday show would consist of
nothing but gospel material. Blue Highway has assembled an entire CD devoted to
this rich legacy of religious bluegrass music.
Opening with an entirely a cappella version of “Wondrous Love,”
complete with four part harmonies, and round singing for the last verse, Blue
Highway’s take on bluegrass gospel stresses spot-on harmonies combined with
virtuosic instrumental work. Sonya
Issacs and Alan O’Bryant’s vocal harmonies augment Tim Stafford’s guitar, Shawn
Lane’s mandolin, Jason Burleson’s banjo, Rob Ickes’ dobro, and Wayne Taylor’s
bass. All the tunes on Wondrous Love
except for the last, an instrumental version of “Old Rugged Cross” featuring
Rob Ickes, highlight the band’s vocal abilities. Their precise harmonies reach
the exacting level pioneered by groups such as the Lonesome River Band and the
Nashville Bluegrass Band. Bluesy inflections and a more urbane attitude
differentiates Blue Highway’s sound from these other fine groups.
Recorded at Dark Horse Studios in Franklin, Tennessee, by Brent
King and Tim Roberts, Wondrous Love sounds
superb. Even on CD players not equipped with built-in HDCD decoders, this HDCD
disc has a beautifully defined, open, yet natural sonic signature. The
recording maintains a delicate balance between each vocal and instrumental
part, even during sections where everyone is playing full-tilt. I’ve long
maintained that some of the best-engineered acoustic recordings can be found on
bluegrass CD’s. Wondrous Love clearly illustrates my point.
Even for those of us from alternative religious backgrounds, Wondrous Love offers a rich and, dare I
say it, heavenly musical experience.
Every musical form needs young hotshot players to remain fresh
and vibrant. Andy Leftwich’s first CD Ride
marks him as one of bluegrass’ most promising new instrumental voices. His
regular gig is with Ricky Skaggs Kentucky Thunder Band, where he adds his
mandolin and fiddle skills to this first-class traditional bluegrass unit. On Ride Leftwich explores more
contemporary-flavored instrumental bluegrass. His nine original compositions
join Django Reinhart/ Stephane Grappelli’s “Minor Swing” and the old
traditional tune “Jesus Love Me” to complete this all-instrumental CD.
Unlike some young instrumental whiz kids, Leftwich’s playing
leans toward a more traditional and melodic approach. Even his original
compositions have a very established and rootsy feeling that is steeped in
old-time style. Although Leftwich spends most of his time on mandolin and
fiddle, his playing reminds me of guitarist Bryan Sutton, whose recent album Bluegrass Guitar displays a similar
reverence for traditional instrumental styles.
Rob Ickes on dobro, Jeff Taylor on accordion, Travis Alltop on
guitar, Richard Bailey on banjo, and Mark Fain and Missy Raines join Leftwich
on Ride. Even though recorded in
three different studios by several different engineers, Ride maintains consistently high sonic quality. I’m sure that some
of the credit for its gorgeous sound should go to mastering engineer Andrew
Mendelson and the facilities in the Denny Purcell room at Georgetown Masters.
One listen to Ride should
convince you that Andy Leftwich epitomizes the kind of fresh blood that’s
keeping bluegrass music healthy and growing. My copy has found its way to my
car player where it makes me smile every time it comes around.
Some songwriters have a seemingly innate ability to
consistently write great songs. Kate Campbell’s new CD, Monuments, proves she is among this elite club. Her sixth
release since 1995, Monuments displays
the maturity and high level of quality that separates great songwriters from
those who are merely talented. Monuments includes
ten original songs, five of which are collaborations between Campbell and her
producer, Walt Aldridge.
Trying to describe Campbell’s music is a little like dancing
about architecture; my words can only give you the vaguest inkling as to the
power of these compositions. The opening song “Yellow Guitar” conjures up the
image of Robert Johnson hitchhiking, seen from his ride’s point of view. The
final selection, “Walk Among the Stones,” mixes images of a young Elvis Presley
with those of casket factories and the rapidly changing Southern landscape.
Trust me, the songs are much more interesting and complex than my feeble descriptions.
A fine collection of Muscle Shoals-based musicians join
Campbell on Monuments, including Mac
McAnally, Marty Raybon, and Cindy Walker on harmony vocals, Spooner Oldham on
Hammond B-3 organ, David Hood on bass, Mark Narmore piano, Pat Buchanan on electric
guitar, Larry Franklin on fiddle, Eddie Bayers and Josh Haselton on drums, Mike
Johnson on dobro, Jeff Taylor on accordion, Jonathon Yudkin on cello, and Walt
Aldridge covering acoustic guitar, mandolin, bass, percussion, and background
vocals. As you might guess by the large
musicians roster, the arrangements on Monuments
are lush and full figured. But even the most ambitious of these settings never
obscures the subtle emotional shadings and impact of the songs.
Bill Monroe used to use, or perhaps overuse, the word
“powerful” to describe anything he felt had value. By Bill’s standards Monuments certainly deserves to be
called powerful as well as beautiful, insightful, arresting, seductive,
complex, and transfixing. If music with depth makes you stop in your tracks, Monuments will turn you into a gargoyle.