The Dixie Bee-Liners,
(Pinecastle, 2009)

On their second full-length CD -- an EP preceded both -- the Virginia-based Dixie Bee-Liners present a kind of road diary of the imagination. "Every car on the highway has a story," a line on the back cover affirms. So Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward, the band's mainstays, write -- with occasional collaborators -- tales of the anonymous occupants of passing vehicles. In Susanville the chosen musical expression is, on the whole, acoustic. On occasion it is bluegrass, on which circuit they usually ply their trade.

As a label, Pinecastle is ordinarily inclined toward more conventional bluegrass sounds than this. The Bee-Liners delve as often into what might be called alternative country-pop, with flights of harmony and twists of melody that would have irked Bill Monroe and fellow fashioners of foundational bluegrass. Sometimes, to be truthful, they irk me, too, even as nobody with ears can deny the level of skill with which the music is set forth. Hart, Woodward and mates are a gifted bunch who take their voices, literal and metaphorical, wherever they want them to go -- as is, naturally, their uncontested right as creative artists. Theirs is the sort of approach that is probably inherently divisive, unlike, say, that taken by Blue Highway whose modernist treatment of bluegrass manages to unite traditionalists and progressives in shared adoration.

Consequently, any response to an album like Susanville is bound to be even more subjective than such things usually are. Unless you come to it with zero expectations -- in which case bluegrass and country are genres in which you have little listening experience and to which you have no deep emotional connection -- you will hear it through the filter of traditions both treasured and well guarded. For us hillbilly-music veterans, the Bee-Liners defy many of the comforting certainties we bring to our own hearing of beloved grassroots genres. One consequence is that -- if one is willing to grant them any time at all -- they will require some getting used to.

The good news is that mostly, listener patience is rewarded. Nothing is going, however, to alter my preference for the more immediately recognizable bluegrass fare. I can't imagine warming up to, for a couple of examples, the airy, popped-up likes of "Brake Lights" and "In My Pocket." But then, of course, that's just me, and those of you who aren't will decide for yourselves. This CD has plenty for everybody, depending on individual preference, either to embrace or to avoid.

You may also find yourself wondering, too, if this is less radical than it appears. Maybe it's a preview of what the phrase "bluegrass" will signify as the new century picks up speed and the old world that shaped bluegrass in its original definition vanishes in history's rearview mirror.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 March 2011

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