The Grascals,
And Then There's This...
(Mountain Home, 2015)

Kathy Kallick Band,
(Live Oak, 2015)

Over the decades of its existence, while more tradition-minded than most musical genres, bluegrass has strayed in various directions its founders could not have predicted. It's attracted an ample supply of singers and pickers with their own ideas, and its audience is no longer as Southern and rural as it was in its formative years. By now you can count, depending on how you define these things, a bewildering assortment of schools of bluegrass. At the extreme, some challenge the definition of bluegrass itself.

I'm not sure, however, that, before now, anyone has thought to divide bluegrassers into just two camps. (It hadn't to me, to be honest, till current bluegrass CDs began appearing regularly in my mail in the past decade.) One camp consists of those whose liner notes credit divine intervention for their career success, and the other of those who nod to more earthly and secular assistance. Almost without exception, as one would expect, the former live in the South, the latter just about anywhere else.

On the Nashville-based Grascals' And Then There's This..., their 11th album, each of the six members of this popular outfit takes care to offer a grateful shout-out to "my Lord above" (once), "God" (twice) and "my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ" (thrice). Kathy Kallick, from California's Bay Area, thanks friends, fellow musicians and music-industry types. I'm not entirely positive what this means in terms of the respective music's sound and quality. It may or may not be an irony that Kallick, who came to bluegrass via the folk revival, seems the more traditional.

The Grascals got their start touring with consummate performer Dolly Parton. I haven't seen them in the flesh, but I have watched them on television on occasion and have always been impressed with their chops, energy and professionalism. Beyond that, their vocals and harmonies are so distinctive that even a bluegrass novice could identify the band instantly. No mistake: these Grascals are good. Bluegrass doesn't really generate "crossover acts" -- in other words, bands whose appeal significantly transcends the core audience -- but the Grascals get as close to it as any while still staying within the lines.

The one knock on them is their material, which tends sometimes toward the uneven. But this time the song selection, while thematically without surprises, is strong and consistent, which ought not to be any sort of shock if you're versed in songwriters Larry Cordle, Carl Jackson, Alan O'Bryant and Shawn Camp. And you can't go wrong with anything by Bill Monroe, and especially so his classic "Highway of Sorrow," which closes the album. The last would never be mistaken for its creator's fierce, high-lonesome version, which is as it ought to be; if it lacks some of the despairing power of the original, it's very much the Grascals' own reading, perfectly effective in its own right. The preceding track, Camp/Long/Hill's "A Place to Hang My Hat," is bluegrass gospel of the highest order, a compelling concept movingly expressed and soulfully delivered.

Veteran West Coast roots singer/guitarist Kathy Kallick makes bluegrass records that at their best -- and decades into it she makes nothing less -- are exciting propositions. She's as gripping a vocalist as anybody on the scene, she has a superior band and she writes and chooses superb material. If you ask for more than that, may the universe forgive you. Her last album, on which she partnered up with her equally gifted friend and colleague Laurie Lewis, The Songs of Vern & Ray (which I reviewed in this space on 27 September 2014), is one for the ages, as true as bluegrass can ever be.

Foxhounds is a suitable follow-up. One hears what makes Kallick's approach different from that of many current acts: her grounding not only in traditional 'grass but in older mountain music. Few present-day artists in the genre share her grasp of the larger folk background from which bluegrass emerged in the middle of the last century. Though it isn't reviving them in any stale imitative sense, the Kathy Kallick Band knows those styles and incorporates them into its own sound. That means, for one thing but not the only thing, that you're hearing traditional songs such as "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and "Banjo Pickin' Girl." There's also new material that feels richer and fuller of body than the average bluegrass composition, in which the lyrics typically recycle genre cliches while the real interest focuses on hot picking.

Kallick's own "I'm Not Your Honey-Baby Now" may well take its inspiration from the Mississippi Sheiks' "Honey Babe, Let the Deal Go Down" (recorded in 1930). "I'll Forgive You," learned from Mac Martin, is an old-school heart song, origin obscure, of a kind prominent in the early bluegrass repertoire. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Richard Thompson's acid-tempered folk-rocker "Tear Stained Letter," a curious choice for bluegrass treatment but magnificently done all the same. (On the other hand, "Letter" was a 1987 country hit for Jo-El Sonnier. On the third hand, Sonnier, a Cajun accordionist, was an unlikely candidate for country stardom.)

Though there is not an unworthy entry amid the 14 on offer, I bear a special affection for the final one, "In Texas," written by Kallick with Riley Thompson. Seeing the title for the first time, I felt a sense of disappointment bordering on betrayal. "Not," I thought (the Austin Lounge Lizards' hilarious creation in mind), "another stupid song about Texas." Suffice it to say it is not. Though not an explicit political statement by any means, beneath its lovely melody and melancholy sentiments you can hear a subversive subtext if you're so inclined.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 January 2016

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