Dale Ann Bradley,
Catch Tomorrow
(Compass, 2006)

Catch Tomorrow, old bluegrass hand Dale Ann Bradley's fifth album, is her first for the eclectic but till now bluegrass-free label Compass, more often associated with Anglo-Celtic artists, Americana singer-songwriters and world musicians. One would expect that a bluegrass singer who caught the label's attention would be a progressive, avant-garde performer who uses the genre as a jumping-off point to wider-ranging experimentation. Happily, this proves not to be the case. Bradley knows full well who she is, which is the genuine, untainted article. And yet....

Bradley operates in a twilight zone bounded on one side by tradition, on the other by innovation. There is little that suggests -- as is true of many current women bluegrass artists -- that she has any ambition to incorporate commercial Nashville strains (in other words, from my crabbed perspective, bland sentiments and pabulum arrangements) into her sound. Her approach is sharper, smarter and strikingly original. In the fashion of a folk singer, she takes to narrative songs with interesting tales to tell, stories that sometimes seem subtly to shift meaning with each successive hearing.

David A. Thompson's "Mercy Railroad" starts out as a straightforward neo-historical song about the 19th-century underground railroad, then transforms itself into something more elusive, something that appears to evoke metaphors representing life, love, death and salvation -- movement over an astonishing length of metaphysical territory in less than four minutes. And every time I listen to Connie Leigh's murder ballad "Rita Mae," I find myself trying to sort out precisely what moral it intends to convey. Though of course it isn't pro-violent crime (and the perpetrator is punished in the end), it curiously disdains the biblical certitude and predictable -- if understandable -- outrage of its traditional models, giving voice only to a simple, fatalistic lesson: "When you play with fire / You're bound to get burned." That is a reference, by the way, to the cheating-wife victim, not to the jealous-husband killer.

Fortunately, Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver's more clearly morally focused "Live Forever," both a love song and a gospel anthem and stirring as either, immediately follows. Bradley's vocals may remind you of Alison Krauss, but you actually like Bradley's singing; you don't just admire its cold perfection. She's a natural duet singer, as witness her handling of Jerry Chestnutt's pure-country wail (once a hit for Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton) "Holding on to Nothing," sung here with Marty Raybon, as well as the aching gospel plea "Pass Me Not," with bluegrass-soul man Larry Sparks. The Irish band Lunasa joins Bradley on the Celtic-flavored "When the Mist Comes Again," another Thompson composition. The set ends with a thoroughly satisfying version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me & Bobby McGee."

No doubt about it, Bradley has soul in spades, but equally vitally, she has brains to match. In collaboration with producer and Compass label head Alison Brown and a gang of notable pickers (among them Tim O'Brien, Stuart Duncan and Michael Cleveland), she's shaped a memorable recording that, uniquely for bluegrass, engages heart and head.

by Jerome Clark
2 December 2006

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