Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, |
Made to Move
(Mountain Home, 2017)
Besides being the leader of a bluegrass band, Chris Jones is a writer within the genre, and I don't mean only a songwriter. He contributes a column to the online magazine Bluegrass Today, his rich humor and broad general knowledge always in evidence. Much as I love bluegrass, I have observed that such erudition is not exactly omnipresent among genre practitioners.
On Made to Move he and the Night Drivers (a fittingly witty name) offer up a dozen cuts with their patented neo-traditional approach. Jones's instantly recognizable lead baritone vocals won't be confused with just any bluegrass singer's. If it's important to you, and I know from long experience that it is to some, rest assured: you can indeed understand every single word. As always, the material, half of which Jones either wrote or co-wrote, is pretty decent, though I wish that someone of his manifest intelligence would more often rise above the tried-and-true tropes of romance and heartbreak. Yet it is also true that he communicates love songs better than most.
Not that anything here is less than pleasurable listening, and sometimes it's more than that, as in the compelling gospel "Sleeping Through the Storm," co-composed with Night Driver bassist Jon Weisberger. The first cut, the original "All the Ways I'm Gone," which first hints at a bluegrass reimagining of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" (such exist, by the way), immediately grabs the attention. It holds it with a succession of nicely turned similes which keep the narrative from lapsing into honey-I'm-outta-here cliche.
Bill Browning's "Dark Hollow" was a ubiquitous presence in the repertoire when I started listening to bluegrass in a concentrated way, more years ago than I care to confess to. Even then, I understood that it owed more than a little to an Appalachian folk song ("East Virginia"), with Browning's lyrics standing alongside the traditional ones. In the years since, though I've never tired of it, till now just about every iteration hasn't seemed all that distinct from the first I heard, which was Larry Sparks'. While remaining true to its durable spirit, Jones and compatriots reshape it to fresh and deeper meaning, with unusually focused attention to the story and strikingly soulful instrumental interludes -- Jones's guitar is magnificent -- as well as a concluding verse I hadn't heard before.
A tip of the hat, too, to the Drivers. Besides Weisberger, they're Gina Clowes (banjo) and Mark Stoffel (mandolin), and they're a crisp and precise outfit that serves the songs and tunes without a second's worth of excess. You have to be good to play bluegrass and expect anybody to listen to (or record) you, of course. Even so, the musicality of the Night Drivers shines as vividly as a bright headlight on a dark country highway.
music review by
11 March 2017
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