Rebekah Long,
Here I Am
(LUK, 2016)

Harlan Road
(Mountain Home, 2016)

More and more I have the feeling that what I've long thought of as modern bluegrass is evolving into traditional bluegrass, which soon will require a new designation. "Mountain bluegrass" is as good as any, I suppose, for the foundational stuff. I have heard enough current music labeled -- inexplicably to me -- bluegrass, not by uninformed others but by the bands themselves, stretching the definition to the breaking point and beyond. This is the sort of thing, alas, that happens to you, in all areas of life, if you hang around long enough. Things you think you know threaten to become something else.

One could write a book -- some have -- on the ways the music Bill Monroe invented has changed over the decades of its existence. In some ways it has stayed the same, and hard-core Appalachian 'grass is still around; you can see and hear it any Saturday evening on RFD-TV's Cumberland Highlanders, broadcast out of rural Kentucky. On the other extreme, bluegrass has become a springboard for experimentation with acoustic instruments, thus mutations like "jam grass." Call me a reactionary lunkhead or worse, but effusions of that ilk are of very little interest to me.

Having grown up in the Midwest and in a mainline Protestant denomination, where people tend to be modest and private about their religious convictions, however deep-seated, I am still a little taken aback when I encounter the unrestrained God-talk, bordering on sermonizing, in liner notes by Southern 'grass bands with evangelical roots. NewTown is a young band with five members, three of whom testify effusively. (I suspect that more casually devout and non-believing bluegrassers maintain tactful silence in such company.) Still, I've found that such displays are usually a sign that the music is tied organically to the culture that produced it, and thus likely to be pretty good. Harlan Road is pretty good, a strong album that bristles with good songs, able picking and ear-pleasing harmonies.

The Lexington, Kentucky-grown NewTown takes an approach that, while not oldtime in form, does suggest an awareness of older mountain-music traditions. That's always a plus in my judgment; bluegrass, after all, is an unusually rooted music, and if you have no interest in roots, there are all kinds of options in more popular genres. Only one of the 11 cuts, an instrumental amusingly titled "The Feast of the Gryphon," was generated within the band by guitarist Hayes Griffin, wittily playing off his last name.

Tyler Childers, composer of four of the songs, evinces a taste for the kind of Appalachian gothic one often encounters in the old ballads, in relentlessly grim but always compelling narratives such as "The Crows & the Jakes" and "Hard Times." The band's fiddle and banjo vocabulary allows for the occasional nod to pre-bluegrass styles. There is also room for the sweet, sad Everlys-style "Come Back to Me" (written by Jon Weisberger and Jeremy Garrett), which ends the album on a note of celestial harmony.

It all works to splendid effect, and lead vocalist Kati Penn's limpid singing is definitely a plus. NewTown, in short, is well worth a visit.

Here I Am, declares Rebekah Long in the title of her new CD. And I say in turn you're welcome, ma'am. This is a nicely put-together collection of bluegrass and acoustic country produced by 'grass artist and songwriter Donna Ulisse. Long and Ulisse are two of the women expanding a genre that for much of its history was almost entirely a male preserve.

Long's singing is so clear and distinctive that Ulisse sees no reason to supplement it with anything like bluegrass orchestral sounds (even while the back-up pickers include some of the most revered players on the current scene). The emphasis is always, properly, on Long's voice, an acute instrument for the communication of story and emotion. She does me the favor of reviving one of my favorite songs, "I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew," among Tom T. Hall's earliest compositions, first recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in the latter 1960s. It's a stunning portrait of injustice, told from the point of view of a traveler whose wanderings lead him to witness various scenes of casual cruelty.

Long is something of a protege of the late Miss Dixie Hall (d. 2015), Tom T.'s long-time wife and musical partner. That association inspires her touching tribute to this gifted woman, "Sweet Miss Dixie Deen," co-written with Ulisse and Rick Stanley. If you're paying close attention, you'll catch the occasional sly allusion to the Carter Family's "Dixie Darling."

While I like Here I Am a lot, I am at a loss to account for Long's choice of the late Merle Haggard's sour "The Fightin' Side of Me," which has to be the worst song this supremely talented man, arguably the greatest songwriter in the history of country music, ever put to paper and wax. One hates to think that the nation has sunk back to the sometimes violent divisions of the Vietnam War era, when Haggard wrote it to express his desire to kick the crap out of dissenters. (Not that he would have done it himself, being physically a small man. Not all hippies, as I can testify from personal observation, were 97-pound weaklings.) Anyway, isn't that sentiment sort of, um, un-American? By contrast, "Fightin' Side's" companion piece "Okie from Muskogee" -- which Long does not cover, happily -- is so over the top that it feels more like zany parody than furious resentment.

Oh well, there are a dozen other numbers and performances to enjoy. Overall, this is a successful recording on just about every level that makes for satisfying bluegrass. It's why some of us never tire of the music.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 July 2016

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