For our second look at the world of Bluegrass we are stretching the definition a little, with a couple of albums that sit as close to contemporary country as to traditional Bluegrass.
The first album however is straight out of the mainstream Bluegrass tradition. Mighty Poplar are a new all-star roots project featuring members of Watchhouse, Punch Bros, and Leftover Salmon. “Across 10 songs that include bluegrass and folk classics and deep cuts from the Carter Family to Leonard Cohen, the fivesome captures the fierce and playful energy of a late night jam between old friends”. And that is true with the solos having the duelling quality of the best jam session without losing sense of the song. Highlights are ‘A Distant Land to Roam’ and ‘Little Joe’
Michael Cleveland’s album is jam packed with guest stars and talent. Not the least of those talents is Cleveland’s own fiddle playing. Towards the mainstream country end of Bluegrass, ‘The Lovin’ of the Game’, is “not beholden to one specific genre or pigeonholed label, it showcases Cleveland’s inclusive musical nature — placing value in the process over the output.” The slightly uneven style does detract a little from the album overall, and the more bluegrass oriented numbers are by far the best. The title song with Flamekeeper and ‘Now She’s Gone’ featuring Jerry Douglas being top of that list.
Ashby Frank’s album, ‘Leaving Is Believing’ is the latest offering from the North Carolina-raised, Nashville-based singer songwriter and mandolinist. The Nashville influence has pushed his music towards mainstream country even more than Michael Cleveland’s. The mandolin dominates most songs as you might expect. It does tend to the bland at times, with Union Station seeming to be his main touchpoint for style. ‘Sea of South Dakota’ could have been an Eagles song, and overall there is a samey-ness to the songs which doesn’t encourage repeat plays.
And now for something completely different. Ears of the People is a collection of contemporary recordings of the ekonting, a three-stringed gourd lute played by Jola people in Gambia and the Casamance region of Senegal. The Ekonting is the key ancestor of the banjo. Why is this in a review of Bluegrass albums. Listen to it and you can hear the rhythms of Bluegrass and Appalachian folk music in these songs. Esukolaal’s ‘Bapaalaay’ could have been played in the Carolinas anytime since the 1930s. Elisa Diedhiou’s ‘Adiatta Ubonketom’ is another song that has clear resonances with Bluegrass. A fascinating document produced to Smithsonian Folkways usual high standard.
It’s back to the Country with our last selection with The Gibson Brothers and their new album ‘Darkest Hour’. Produced by the ubiquitous Jerry Douglas, this is good time Bluegrass at its best. ‘I Feel The Same Way As You’ is one of the best ballads you’ll hear this year. ‘Shut Up And Dance’ is rock and roll to Bluegrass beat with electric guitar adding to the traditional instruments sued throughout the album. The press for the album tells us “The Gibson Brothers have had their greatest success in the world of bluegrass, but their talent knows no bounds.” Quite true.
It’s always good to see Bluegrass articles. You can never have enough Bluegrass.
I’m enjoying the Michael Cleveland album. The thing about Bluegrass, and acoustic music in general, is the collaborations and ensembles that form for albums and concerts. That’s certainly evident with ‘The Lovin’ of the Game’.
So it is with Mighty Poplar. This is the album I’m really looking forward to. Three of the players tend to perform at the jazzy/ chamber end of the Bluegrass spectrum and it will be good to hear them in a completely traditional set up. Nothing with Alex Hargreaves playing on it can be bad: Billy Strings shows have gone to another level since he joined.