Darin & Brooke Aldridge,
Faster & Farther
(Mountain Home, 2017)

Blue Mafia,
Hanging Tree
(Pinecastle. 2016)

Seeing Hanging Tree in the title of Blue Mafia's latest release, I anticipated a bluegrass arrangement of one of my favorite faux-frontier tunes, Mack David & Jerry Livingston's theme song for the 1959 Western movie of that name. Marty Robbins made it into a hit that year on both country and pop charts. While pure Hollywood, it does faintly echo, coincidentally or otherwise, the storyline of the antique ballad "Gallows Pole."

Destined for disappointment, alas, was I. It turns out that the song is connected with a much more recent film, The Hunger Games, known to me only by reputation. The five members of the band all look too young to recall either the original movie (based on a short story by the then-popular Montana writer Dorothy M. Johnson) or the original song. Fortunately, that doesn't ruin the album for me. The Indiana-bred Blue Mafia (whose Pray for Rain I reviewed in this space on 7 February 2015) is among the more noteworthy young bands, with a bright, out-front sound that has banjo and guitar sharing equally in the action, enhanced by robust vocals and sparkling harmonies.

It's not always easy to take on familiar material from bluegrass' grand masters, but the band shines on a couple of standards, Bill Monroe's "With Body & Soul" (written by Virginia Stauffer) and Carter Stanley's "Say Won't You Be Mine." Bluegrass songwriting has exploded in the past two or three decades, freeing musicians from what sometimes seemed like endless reiteration of the foundational repertoire. There's nothing objectionable about fresh compositions and creative contributions, of course. At the same time it's nice to be reminded of just how soulful those early songs were. Blue Mafia finds its own way with them, transforming the tried and true into the feels-as-if new.

Dara Wray's vocals waft pleasingly from the speakers. It's not a bluegrass voice from 50 years ago -- well, female bluegrass voices were not often heard in those days -- but it suits the band's modernist-traditionalist style. Wray also composed three of the disc's dozen cuts. Affirmations of faith, love and home, at least thematically they bear the mark of first-generation bluegrass. At the other extreme, there's Kevin Hayes's closer "Who Are You," melodically and lyrically indistinguishable from 21st-century Nashville country-pop. I hope that's not an omen of what's ahead for the band.

Slightly faster and farther down the road to modernization, Darin & Brooke Aldridge on looks alone could qualify for Music City stardom. Fortunately, they've remained in bluegrass, steadily and deservedly gaining in popularity owing to their impossible-to-ignore performance qualities. Mostly, this isn't old-fashioned bluegrass, though their rendition of Carl Jackson/Jim Rushing's "Highway of Heartache" gives us a hint of what they'd sound like if it were: in a word, fabulous. It doesn't hurt that Vince Gill's voice is in there, too.

Brooke's own voice could pierce through concrete, in a good way. Her and Darin's harmonies sizzle. He plays mandolin and guitar, joined by a shifting line-up of pickers whom fans will recognize. The production, by the Aldridges, is impeccable. If you like music, you have guaranteed satisfaction. That said....

Faster & Farther features "Someday Soon," which is good, but in a mildly irritating, one might even say distractingly clueless, reading. Next to "Four Strong Winds," "Someday" is Canadian folksinger Ian Tyson's most famous song, a hit for Judy Collins and later for Suzy Bogguss. Tyson chooses each word with care and intelligence, and singers stray at their peril. Told from her perspective, the song concerns a young woman's infatuation with a rodeo rider whom her father despises. In the original she surmises the reason: "Got a hunch he was as wild back in the early days"; some singers have it, "Guess he was...." Either way, it's a funny line, because if the suspicion is true it's clearly something the father does not want her to know. Missing the joke apparently, Brooke sings witlessly, "Yes, it's 'cause he was...."

Tyson sang one line "the toughest row to hoe." Here it's the less striking (at least to my ear) "the roughest road I know." This is relatively inconsequential, but rather worse, Tyson's "damned old rodeo" becomes "danged old rodeo" according to Brooke. Is the bluegrass audience made up of shrinking violets or something?

Oh well. I may as well express one more reservation. While I have no problem whatever with the Aldridges' contemporary approach, I wish their material were less inclined at times to bland country-pop. Several songs (e.g., "Still Falling") are insipid and disposable, in the fashion of product from current Nashville's song factory, their likely source. The opposite can be said of, for one, their stunning inhabitation of the hymn "Sacred Lamb," which exemplifies the two at a state of perfection.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 January 2017

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