The Mayflies,
Jerusalem Ridge
(Feral Dachshund, 2007)

Based in Iowa City, Iowa, the five-member Mayflies are now on their third album, this one named after the well-known Bill Monroe instrumental, also the opening cut. I haven't heard their first two releases, but if Jerusalem Ridge is any indication, they're a fusion roots band, uncovering the common language that unites old-time folk, country and bluegrass.

Instrumentally speaking, bluegrass is at the forefront, with Jon Eric's muscular Scruggs-style banjo and Annie Savage's strong, energetic fiddle defining a good part of the Mayflies' musical personality. But James Robinson's drums are just as much a part of the band's psyche; drums, of course, are not ordinarily judged an acceptable bluegrass instrument. Even so, the Mayflies feel more authentic than much contemporary bluegrass, which even with the more conventional acoustic, non-percussive instrumental lineup too often manages to achieve little more than bland country-pop. The vocals are modern, which is to say un-twangish, but they do the job. You might call this a kind of alt.bluegrass, though possibly the term conjures up visions of tedious, jam-band experimentation not, in fact, much in evidence.

The material consists mostly of traditional standards -- "Shady Grove," "St. James Hospital" (the cowboy version), "I am a Pilgrim" -- performed with such affection, aplomb and virtuosity that they never feel stale. Even the grand old George Jones/Hal Bynum weeper "The Old, Old House," hard to imagine outside Jones's own deep country-soul reading, sounds okay, though given the source, probably not the band's most judicious cover choice.

One imagines the Mayflies are best experienced live. Still, Jerusalem Ridge is a supremely good-natured album that even those with the most narrow, crabbed vision of how bluegrass ought to sound will have to struggle to dislike.

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review by
Jerome Clark

21 July 2007

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