The best Americana albums are often a blend of a variety of roots music styles, and sometimes draw in influences from well beyond our little corner of the musical forest. And Bluegrass as we’ve seen in recent Bluegrass Briefs installments is no exception.
So, the New Orleans funk of ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ the opening song from The Cleverlys’ ‘Solid Butter’, should be no surprise. Moving on from covering Dr John to Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ which works brilliantly as a traditional style Bluegrass tune. So, weirdly, does ‘Love Shack’. As with all the best music/comedy mixes this works because the music is great. They’ve built a career out of unlikely covers and made it work. So, we can even forgive them ‘Gangnam Style’… Almost.
Nora Brown is often cast as a teen banjo prodigy. Her EP with fiddle player Stephanie Coleman, ‘Lady of the Lake’. Is a lo-fi masterpiece of Appalachian string band music. Brought together by “legendary” producer Peter K. Siegel, they have created something quite hypnotic in the instrumental opening song. The vocal songs ‘Gone So Long’ and ‘Copper Kettle’ have a wistful air, but the highlight is the almost Scottish folk of ‘Twin Sisters’. Making this an EP was the right choice as it leaves you wanting more.
Andy Lowe’s Banjo playing is quite different to Brown’s. His album ‘Nervous Energy’ recruits a cast of thousands for a run though a dozen tunes that flit between traditional and Nu-Grass. Opening with the best song, ‘On The Lonesome Wind’ he works through a variety of singers. His banjo is the distinctive thread that makes this feel less bitty than that might imply. Zack Arnold’s 3 songs are standouts, especially ‘Zip Lock’. The instrumental work outs that you must include on a Bluegrass album are led by ‘Boatman Stomp’. This seems to be unlikely covers month in Bluegrass and Lowe and Amanda Cook’s take on ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ give The Cleverlys strong competition.
‘Last Chance to Win’ is East Nash Grass’ new album is in the traditional mould. And as a palette cleanser from all the music that tries to stretch Bluegrass into funk or rock it’s a great reminder of why Bluegrass is such a joyful music, and why everyone should be dancing round the room to it. Top songs here are ‘I Almost Told Her’, ‘Jenna McGaugh’ which a lightning fast instrumental and country tune ‘Magic City Grey’. If you are new to Bluegrass then this is a good album to start with, as it contains all that is good about the genre. And I learnt a new term for what I’m guessing is a new subgenre. “Grassicana”.
Buster Sledge’s press describes them as an “Oslo-based Norwegian/American acoustic wonder-group”. ‘Nice Time on Earth Today’ proves that a love of the music compensates for not living in West Virginia. Songwriter, lead vocalist and fiddler Michael Donovan is an honest to goodness American and has an interesting lyrical style which stretches the normal Bluegrass clipped vocal style towards folk and country. This is a really interesting album, with ‘Saddle Up The Fence’ and ‘Warm and Stupid’ the pick of the songs. Donovan’s writing is far from typical, and the European influences that creep into the playing, Gypsy Jazz on ‘New Sock’ for instance, make this a good listen for anyone feeling jaded by the genre. And another new genre… “New-time upbeat sadgrass melancholicana.”
Jim Lauderdale, and The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys team up for an album called ‘The Long And Lonesome Letting Go’. The title track features Del McCoury and sets the tone for a set of straight-ahead Bluegrass that is taken at a mostly mid-tempo pace, meaning it needs a few listens for its appeal to become clear. ‘Last Resort’ is a slightly faster tune, but nothing gets up to full Bluegrass warp speed. This does mean that the quality of the songs is more obvious than on more frenetic material. Try ‘Darkness Is the Other Side of Light’ to discover the bluesy side of their music. Give it time and this will become a true favourite.