Gina Clowes,
True Colors
(Mountain Home, 2017)

Rebekah Long,
Run Away
(Luk, 2017)

With her latest release -- I reviewed the previous one, Here I Am, in this space on 23 July 2016 -- Rebekah Long continues to carve out an artistic space where strains of tradition-inflected modern bluegrass intertwine in a sound that nobody would call "driving." One wonders what bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, gone these past two decades, would have thought. After all, for the bulk of its history "driving" and "bluegrass" were never far removed in any review or characterization of the genre.

It wasn't all propulsion, of course, and there was no shortage of melodic material, usually shaped by heart songs and mountain ballads from another age of Appalachian music-making. On Run Away tradition's echoes are fainter, though unlike some artists these days Long doesn't give the impression of being a contemporary country performer who took a wrong turn on the way to Nashville and stardom. It's clear that her involvement in bluegrass is neither recent nor casual. On the other hand, this isn't the high-lonesome stuff, either.

Guided by Donna Ulisse, whose contributions as artist, producer and songwriter are ubiquitous on today's bluegrass scene, Run Away is mostly melodic, on occasion almost delicate, sometimes fluffy songs of love's triumphs and travails, with the occasional story song or gospel number. It features a couple of welcome novelties: Loudon Wainwright III's droll "The Swimming Song" (possibly never recorded in a 'grass arrangement till now) and Elton John & Bernie Taupin's "Honky Cat." Not being much attuned to 1970s pop, I must have heard the latter on three or four occasions long ago, not enough to have formed an opinion about it one way or another. I do know, however, that Long's reading delights. It helps that it's framed within a laid-back flat-picking guitar arrangement (by Cody Kilby) that would not have been out of place on a Doc Watson album.

The originals (nine of 12) are Long/Ulisse co-writes (Jerry Salley is listed as third composer on "Fishin' on the Cumberland"). The band boasts respected pickers, among them banjoist Scott Vestal and bassist Mike Bub. Everything works pleasingly, and a couple of the originals, "A Place in the Clouds" and "Woodland Street," rise to a level of unusual and noteworthy, in something of a Gordon Lightfoot style. The title song, about a commitment-phobic cad who flees into the night, is wittily sung in a voice that communicates both indignation and humor, as much laughter as lament.

While marketed as such, True Colors seems less like a bluegrass album with each successive listening. Yes, there is bluegrass here, including the unabashedly traditional "Good Old Fashioned Heartbreak," an original; all cuts but one are Gina Clowes creations. And in her day job Clowes serves as banjo picker in the excellent Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, routinely judged the brainiest 'grass band on the circuit.

Still, the greater part of Colors embraces explorations into other genres, as played on instruments associated with bluegrass. Jazz and pop are prominent, and there are some Irish and Latin accents ("Goodbye, Lianne," "La Puerta del Diablo"), too. The level of musicianship is unfailingly and impressively high, and the songs, even if not always to my particular taste, are exceptionally crafted. And Clowes' vocals are at once sweet and strong.

music review by
Jerome Clark

4 November 2017

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