Front Country,
Sake of the Sound
(independent, 2014)

The Bay Area-based Front Country may not be my idea of a bluegrass outfit. Then again, that may be because I'm still living in the 20th century. Since its inception in 2011 the band has won acclaim on bluegrass stages throughout the West and taken home a host of prestigious awards. Its members apparently think of themselves as bluegrass players. So perhaps the definition is changing. I'm not sure, however, that Bill Monroe, founder of the genre, would recognize what Front Country is doing.

What it is doing, whatever it is (to my hearing, contemporary stringband music with occasional bluegrass touches), is pretty good. Even the moldiest fig can't deny the skill and creativity that define Front Country, six young pickers schooled in a range of acoustic musics, from folk to newgrass to country-rock to singer-songwriter pop to string jazz. The original material is undeniably sure-footed. The non-originals are well chosen, mostly, but Bob Dylan's early protest song "Long Ago, Far Away" still seems an inferior piece of work. I suppose, though, that nobody is going to match Front Country's effort to make something of it. The late Utah Phillips's "Rock Salt & Nails" is a much better song, yet so often covered over the past half century that even the band's keenly imaginative impulses feel not quite up to the task. There are, too, lots of other deserving Phillips songs awaiting rediscovery.

On the other hand, the traditional spiritual "Gospel Train," carried by Melody Walker's sturdy vocal atop fiddle and distorted acoustic guitar, gives one the psychic impression less of a moving locomotive than of a sonic wave. The listener wonders uneasily if in a second or two all of this is going to flood out of control, but the band never surrenders its command over the roiling waters. The inspiration may be -- I am speculating -- Ollie Rupert's 1927 recording "I Wish My Mother Was on That Train." If so, the band's arrangement is a dramatic reinvention perfectly suited to 87 years later. Other appealing numbers follow, but none races the heart and drives the blood flow quite the way this does.

Five of the 12 cuts are written by band members. Three are by vocalist/guitarist Walker, two (one the classical-tinged instrumental "Old Country") by mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz. Walker composed the title cut, whose oblique lyrics take them far outside the bluegrass usual. Good song, though.

For all its musical curiosity and exploration, Front Country still manages to feel as if linked somehow to older American grassroots sounds. Which is to say that its members are conscious of who and where they are. No innocents abroad, they seek their own place on a landscape they know well. From the evidence afforded in the amiably accomplished Sake of the Sound I think we ought to wish them long and happy habitation.

music review by
Jerome Clark

25 October 2014

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