The Dixie Bee-Liners,
(Pinecastle, 2007)

Since last we heard from them (I reviewed their eponymous EP in this space on 5 May 2007), the Dixie Bee-Liners -- or anyway, the band's core, Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward -- have moved on from the concrete canyons of Manhattan to the green fields of Virginia. (The Bee-Liners in their present iteration are a six-piece outfit.) Oddly, the transition has ... well, it may not have turned them into a mainstream band, but it's put more of pop gloss on their more-or-less-bluegrass template. In other words, if the Bee-Liners now merit the Dixie part of their name, they sound less Southern and rural than they used to.

The particular sound on Ripe once was called newgrass, after the inventive -- one might say post-bluegrass -- New Grass Revival that formed and attracted huge attention in the 1970s, though it's long defunct. In some ways a rock outfit (its nominally acoustic instruments, for instance, were plugged in), NGR took its explorations in arrangement and repertoire farther than most of the bands it would inspire. The Bee-Liners aren't that radical. On occasion a Hart/Woodward composition (the two are responsible for all of the dozen cuts) sounds almost indistinguishable from a two-century-old ballad sung by a century-old string band. You'll have to check writer credits to determine that "Yellow-Haired Girl" didn't exist until recently.

Then, on the other hand....

Not entirely representative of their current approach, but somewhat more so, is the song that follows it, "The Bugs in the Basement." Its opening line -- "Bugs in the basement whistle my name" -- may be the creepiest bluegrass lyric I've ever heard. What follows, however, is strangely cheerful, specifically the sort of good-natured folk-pop tune you'd expect to encounter, minus Pete and Maura's (literal) electricity, on an album by the Kennedys.

How much pop you're willing to abide in your bluegrass is, of course, a matter of taste and nothing more. From an objective perspective detached from personal preference, it can be fairly acknowledged that the Bee-Liners do what they do quite well indeed. It helps, to start with, that Hart is a warm and appealing singer. The production, by music veteran Bill VornDick, is at once crisper and more open than you're likely to hear on many bluegrass discs. Aural pleasure, surely no listener will dispute, is sustained throughout.

Besides an unmistakable background in rock and pop, Hart and Woodward do know their traditional Southern music. Many songs have rural or historical themes, sometimes lyrical allusions to older songs. Even so, the melodies and swirling, non-bluegrass harmonies -- more resonant of Brill Building than of Blue Ridge Mountain -- are unexpected, sometimes even a bit disorienting. I can't decide whether this is because they bespeak surprising imagination or misplaced ambition. You can listen to "Grumble Jones" -- a ballad about a real-life Confederate general, co-written with Blue Highway's Tim Stafford, that sounds nothing like a real-life Civil War-era song -- and make up your own mind.

In any event, the Dixie Bee-Liners -- perhaps, now that I think of it, the Kennedys of bluegrass-pop -- are sure to attract notice and spark discussion. If you're curious about what they're up to, Ripe is ready for tasting.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

22 March 2008

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