Dave Adkins & Republik Steele,
That's Just the Way I Roll
(Rural Rhythm, 2013)

Darin & Brooke Aldridge,
Live at Red, White & Bluegrass!
(Mountain Home, 2012)

One doesn't expect vapid pop music in a bluegrass band from Elkhorn City, Ky. After all, Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, hailed from Kentucky, and he named his group the Bluegrass Boys after the Bluegrass State. Kentucky and bluegrass are separable, in short, only with a metaphorical crowbar. Happily, Elkhorn City's own Dave Adkins & Republik Steele do Kentucky's music proud on their impressive first recording.

Adkins is a big, beefy young guy, fronting the four big, beefy young guys who comprise Republik Steele. You will not be surprised to learn that the result is a big, beefy sound. Theirs is hard-core bluegrass with an r&b edge courtesy of Adkins's tough, deep-throated vocals. That voice takes on some smartly chosen material, including a couple of decades-old radio hits (John Conley's hard-country "Rose Colored Glasses," Dave Loggins's folkish "Please Come to Boston") that one would never have anticipated hearing in bluegrass settings.

On the other hand, Mark "Brink" Brinkman's wonderful "Laura Mae," which steals its first line from "Man of Constant Sorrow," could not exist as anything but bluegrass. If you love the genre as much as I do, it'll remind you of what gives bluegrass its special character. The unusual gospel number "Don't They Know He's Watching?" is another highlight.

The band and this recording have sparked something of a buzz in the bluegrass world, and deservedly so. I expect that we'll be hearing more of Dave Adkins and the boys in the future.

The North Carolina-based Darin & Brooke Aldridge, who like to call themselves the "Sweethearts of Bluegrass," deliver another kind of 'grass on Live at Red, White & Bluegrass! -- less intense, not quite so rural, but still, satisfying enough in its own right. The harmonies, at which the Aldridges excel, are akin to ones to be encountered on one of Emmylou Harris's more rootsy albums. Brooke's singing is honey to the ear, and on a country standard like Voni Morrison/Johnny Russell's break-up masterpiece "Making Plans," she's just plain riveting in the way she evokes the heartbreak.

My sole complaint is the inclusion of Phil Spector's insufferably twee "To Know Him is to Love Him," which I've disliked since the first time I heard it a long, long time ago. Still, the Aldridges do the best they can, and when they've got a good (if unexpected) song such as Neil Young's "Powderfinger," which closes the album, they manage to improve on the original. If this isn't exactly deep bluegrass, it has its own pleasures to offer.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 April 2013

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