The Grascals are a young and upcoming bluegrass band that’s turning a lot of heads. The Angel Band is a trio of women vocalists with some folk music royalty. It’s a day for fancy picking and smooth harmonies on Driftwood.
The Famous Lefty Flynn’s
Already nominated for International Bluegrass Music Association awards as Album of the Year and Instrumental Recorded Performance of the Year (for “Blue Rock Slide”), the Grascals’ fourth album shows why the Nashville-based group has gone from backing up Dolly Parton to reigning as the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America’s Bluegrass Band of 2010. Superb musicianship, ultra-smooth harmonies, and a rich mix of traditional-sounding originals and great cover tunes radiate throughout the 12-track album. Hank Williams Jr., with whom the Grascals recorded a single, “All the Roads,” last year, adds gritty vocals to a cover of his father’s “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.” The influence of hard-hitting bluegrass outfit the Osborne Brothers, guitarist/vocalist Terry Eldridge and upright bassist Terry Smith’s former employers, echoes through faithful renditions of the Osbornes’ “Son of a Sawmill Man” and “Up This Hill and Down.” Kristin Scott Benson, the wife of IIIrd Tyme Out mandolinist Wayne Benson, who joined the Grascals after their last album, Keep on Walkin’, in 2008, plays Sonny Osborne’s banjo on her recording debut.
The group shows how far it’s willing to go with bluegrass-ized reworkings of the Monkees’ 1967 pop hit “Last Train to Clarksville,” which opens the disc, and Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues.” Guitarist/vocalist Jamie Johnson continues to grow as a songwriter. The title track conveys the tragic tale of a convict who offers advice to his young cellmate before being shot down attempting to escape, while “My Baby’s Waiting on the Other Side,” written with Smith and mandolin player Danny Roberts, is an up-tempo, passionate breakdown. A ballad about a grandmother’s unbending faith (“Satan and Grandma”) and a traditional gospel hymn (“Give Me Jesus”) thread the album with Christian spirit.
The Angel Band
Bless My Sole
When you’ve got David Bromberg in your band, you’re bound to attract attention. When you’re as talented as Bromberg’s singer-songwriter wife, Nancy Josephson, and her group, the Angel Band, you deserve it. With their second album, the Angel Band continues to reinforce its own identity with smooth-as-silk vocals by Josephson, Kathleen Weber, and Alison “Aly Cat” Paige set to a rootsy blend of folk and blues played masterfully by co-producer Marc Moss (mandolin, guitar, accordion), Bob Taylor (bass), and newcomer Christie Lenee (guitar), along with Nate Grower (fiddle) and Bukka Allen (accordion). Bromberg appears as a guest, staying out of the spotlight while spinning supportive guitar melodies.
Comparisons with the Dixie Chicks are inevitable, not only because of the presence of three great female vocalists, but because, like its predecessor (2008’s With Roots & Wings), Bless My Sole carries the thumbprint of co-producer Lloyd Maines, father of the Dixie Chicks’ lead singer, Natalie Maines; Lloyd also plays pedal steel, guitar, and banjo on the album. The sound steers away from mainstream country, though, in favor of Americana’s deep roots. Each of the women has her moment to shine. Paige takes the lead on a swinging ode to gambling, “(I Feel) Lucky,” while Weber lets it rip on a fiery cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” the only tune not written by Josephson. An ex-background singer for Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and Phoebe Snow, Josephson continues to make strides with her songwriting. She celebrates the optimism inspired by Barack Obama’s presidency on opening track “Hope Is on the Way” and takes a hard look at immigration in America on “Same Boat.” “Black Jar Sway” offers a look at drug dependency through the eyes of an addict, and “Fly Away Home” is a gospel-esque song of mourning.
—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)
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