Michael & Jennifer McLain,
Hit the Road & Go
(independent, 2016)

The Savage Hearts,
Playing It Forward
(independent, 2016)

Michael McLain is a member of a well-known Southeastern bluegrass family. Here, on banjo and guitars, he joins his wife and fellow vocalist Jennifer (banjo, mandolin) and a small band of pickers to weave together a miscellany of acoustic, downhome, not always precisely bluegrass songs and tunes. The backup players feature, most prominently, Mike Bub (bass) and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin).

Hit the Road & Go is neither hard-core 'grass nor the modernist/experimental counterpart, but in its own distinctive fashion it makes for enjoyable listening.

The CD works not only because the McLains boast sunny temperament and instrumental facility but because the material is strong and sure. True, no single cut will change your life or tempt you to pronounce it among the most extraordinary performances you've ever heard. On the other hand, everything will pass happily through your ears and lift your spirits. Even with the gloomier-themed numbers it's sort of the difference between Mike Smotherman's "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" as done by the late Sid Selvidge (on his 2003 A Little Bit of Rain) and as done here. The first will rip your soul apart; the second is engagingly melancholy. And there's nothing wrong with the latter. It's just an approach suited to Jennifer's voice and to the band generally.

Sung by Michael, Merle Watson's "Southbound," perhaps the most-covered song, never wears out its welcome even after many recordings since its initial appearance on an early Doc Watson album. Though the theme is a cliche, somehow the younger Watson was able to transcend the all-too-familiar sentiments, to the degree that those of us who have no Southern connections beyond the music feel ourselves on board for the trip back to familiar scenery. On the opposite end of the highway, Carl Perkins's rambler's anthem "Restless," if not his most famous song still my favorite of an exemplary lot, sparkles in a banjo-driven arrangement. Jennifer and band nimbly swing "Up This Hill & Down."

One complaint, though. There are no writer credits anywhere. Songs, it needs to be stressed, are actually written -- they don't fall out of the ether -- and writers deserve credit and recognition.

Once upon a time Colorado, where the Savage Hearts are based, had a reputation, with an honorable exception or two (e.g., Hot Rize), for sending slick, bluegrass-pop outfits out into the world. The Hearts are not one of those, though at the same time they're not trying to emulate the genre's foundational artists. They're no more insistently all-bluegrass than Hit the Road is. Call it modern stringband style; yet that's not all it is either. The band knows and reveres the tradition, and it incorporates oldtime fiddle tunes and spirituals into the mix. Bob Wills' "Faded Love," of which it is hard to tire, is re-imagined as if older than history attests, in other words around longer than pre-1940s Western swing.

The outfit's name owes to its leader, fiddler and vocalist Annie Savage, who is backed by multi-stringed acoustic instrumentalists Kevin Slick and Kit Simon, along with stand-up bassist Bianca Bentz. Playing It Forward opens with Jim Croce's "Age," which I don't recall hearing before this. It proved to be a most pleasant surprise, a number worth remembering and reviving. In the vein of the singing-cowboy crooners of yesteryear, "Compadres in the Old Sierra Madres" follows charmingly, the work of Paul Chrisman, aka fiddler Woody Paul of Riders in the Sky. Savage offers up supple interpretations wherever she goes. Slick's tenor, while not a bluegrass one, works well enough to render, for example, Malcolm McKinney's "Don't Cry Blue" seem a little better than it is. Not that it's a bad tune; Slick just kicks it up a notch.

Putting its own mark on bluegrass, folk and country sounds, Playing It Forward moves it all along nicely. It and Hit the Road soon fit with the comfort and stamina of old shoes that will carry you home or wherever else you want to go.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 February 2017

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