American Drive,
American Drive
(Rural Rhythm, 2012)

A Better Place
(BlueGrass Ahead, 2012)

Two strong new releases deliver bluegrass sounds with separate accents, but in each case with its own clear identity. One group is based in Nashville, with a pronounced Southern sound and a long heritage, and the other comes out of Michigan with a sometimes softer-edged but thoughtful approach.

American Drive's eponymous disc is the first under this name, but not all that long ago, its members made up the New South part of J.D. Crowe & the New South, a revered leader and a revered band. American Drive goes on, with Crowe's blessing, to put together a dozen cuts of solid traditional 'grass, with no fewer than three lead singers (Ricky Wasson, Dwight McCall, Matt DeSpain) among its five members. Wasson plays guitar, McCall mandolin and DeSpain dobro, while nonvocalists Kyle Perkins and Justin Jenkins handle upright bass and banjo, respectively. Guest artist Ron Stewart contributes fiddle.

This is the sort of album any halfway serious bluegrass fan will take to in fish-into-water style. Jenkins's muscular banjo swings with such unpretentious confidence that one looks forward to his moments in the spotlight; note how he anchors "Stone's Throw Away," elevating a song of no particular distinction in itself into a standout. Even without the solid arrangements, though, most of the songs would stand on their own. Drive goes into social commentary with the powerful "War is Hell" while on the other hand reviving an old Don Williams hit, the teary romantic lament "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend." The show closes with the often-covered, invariably pleasurable "Gotta Travel On," Paul Clayton's long-ago rewrite of an ever longer-ago folk song.

Detour names itself after "Detour," a Western swing-and-country classic first recorded in 1945 and after that covered by other mid-century hillbilly outfits. The band, however, travels mostly the main highway of contemporary bluegrass, not hard-core traditional in its arrangements but not quite radically re-inventive either. Here and there, a song like "Wind in the Willows" nods to Alison Krauss's acoustic-pop sound, and "The Letter" is indeed the Box Tops' 1967 chart-topper. But there is also an exemplary cover of "I'll Go Stepping Too," from the early Flatt & Scruggs repertoire." "Lovin' Liza Jane," written by Detour's enchanting vocalist Missy Armstrong, bows to inspiration from the oldtime tradition and specifically the family of songs name-checking that young woman.

Eight of the 14 cuts are written by mandolinist Jeff Rose, whose songs are precisely suited to the band's tastefully picked modernist arrangements. Detour's six members apply themselves as much to melody as to rhythm, the result being an almost orchestral ambience at points. If you don't insist that all bluegrass sound Appalachian and propulsive, this more conversational and expressive entree into the genre should please you. As a bluegrass traditionalist at heart, I find that some songs touch me more than others, but everything here merits a more than respectful hearing. What Detour is doing requires a specific kind of musical virtuosity, and it has it in spades.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 January 2013

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