Billy Droze,
To Whom It May Concern
(Rural Rhythm, 2017)

Donna Ulisse,
Breakin' Easy
(Mountain Home, 2017)

Billy Droze grew up in Louisiana, Alabama and Texas, immersed in bluegrass and country music, sometimes accompanying his father Bob "Red" Droze. The elder Droze, in fact, released an album on Rural Rhythm in 1962. In short, the music is in Billy's genes and breath. On To Whom It May Concern he evinces a formidable talent as both vocalist and songwriter. Its dozen songs are all co-writes, bluegrass star Ronnie Bowman (the album's co-producer with Droze) the most prominent collaborator.

It may be not be coincidence that the late Keith Whitley is mentioned in the first verse of the first cut, "Kentucky Blues." Whitley, whose career as a neotrad-country chart-topper was cut short by his tragic death (its precise causes still disputed) in 1989, began his career as a bluegrass singer and guitarist with Ralph Stanley and then in a duo act with Ricky Skaggs. One can't help wondering if Whitley would have sounded something like this if he had lived and eventually returned to his musical roots. It's also true that one hears the great Del McCoury among the influences. No matter; what counts is that To Whom is a well-above average recording.

Not a single weak cut rises to the ear, something one can say only rarely even about good bluegrass discs. Though the themes are largely standard ones, Droze and associates manage to avoid just about every well-worn phrase and hackneyed image. Here and there, a surprise flies out of the grooves, for example "Lead Me," which appears to be a gospel song but turns out not to be. My favorite cut is "Raging Rivers" but not by much since there's plenty of solid competition: "Sounds Like Pretty Music," "My Father's Son," the witty title tune.

If this isn't exactly mountain 'grass, Droze's is still a tradition-based approach. Yet it's distinctive because he's injected freshness into an often-visited style. There can be no higher ambition, or one more difficult to achieve, than to innovate and to affirm at the same time. Droze shows us how bluegrass carries its past into its future, in which place Droze -- if he continues at this pace -- is bound to be a noteworthy figure.

By now Donna Ulisse, whose releases I have been reviewing since 2008 (most recently the excellent Hard Cry Moon in this space on 17 October 2015), has established herself as among the most respected of the current generation of bluegrass artists. Her songs are regularly covered by others in the genre. Breakin' Easy marks her debut on Mountain Home.

Ulisse takes her inspiration from 1970s country, as sung by the women -- e.g., Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Dottie West and others who at least in my memory dominated radio play in those days -- who were rising to prominence in an environment in which till then men had called the shots. Though Ulisse is entirely capable of performing convincing traditional 'grass, there is only one cut's worth of the undiluted here (Kimberly Fox/Brandon Rickman's "I'm in a Hurry to Go Nowhere"). Breakin' Easy splits the difference between bluegrass and country-pop, bringing in the occasional steel guitar and percussion while adhering to bluegrass-style harmonies and acoustic arrangements.

The result is what we've come to expect from Ulisse: an enjoyable and accomplished strain of contemporary bluegrass. Thematically, the songs don't stray far; they evoke love celebrated and love mourned. The latter, inevitably, are deeper and more affecting. That, after all, is just the nature of things; it's the sad songs that do it to us. Still, even the celebrations, including those saddled with piffle lyrics ("Made for Each Other," "We've Got This Love Thing Figured Out"), are set to such amiable melodies, and sung with such good humor, that complaint seems futile and pointless.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 September 2017

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