Michelle Nixon
& Drive,
It's My Turn
(Pinecastle, 2003)

Given the growing prominence of women in bluegrass, the title of this disc is, I'm sure, not without clear and specific meaning. The publicity material that comes with the disc takes care to mention Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent and Dolly Parton (more or less a bluegrass performer in recent years) and wants you to think of Michelle Nixon in the same mental breath. The promotional literature goes on to insist that what's on It's My Turn is "the new sound of today's modern bluegrass and acoustic music."

Well, not really, at least in my hearing, through which the sounds of bluegrass have been passing more years than I can recall without shuddering. This is, in fact, straightforward, time-tested, meat-and-potatoes bluegrass. These days, by way of contrast, Alison Krauss is as much acoustic pop as acoustic country. More and more Rhonda Vincent's music, beneath its neotraditional veneer, has an unmistakable Nashville -- which is to say '00s showbiz -- gloss. And Dolly Parton is ... well ... Dolly Parton, and there is no point in anyone else's even thinking of going there.

All of the above-named do what they do very well, of course. A number of lesser-known women are also making their marks in the once male-dominated genre, and Nixon is the equal of any. She doesn't need to be anybody but Michelle Nixon, and if she is more old than new, what in the world could possibly be wrong with that? Most of bluegrass' best moments, hardly anyone would disagree, are courtesy of its traditional artists. Nixon and Drive are hardly the Stanley Brothers, but they are something like what the Stanleys' smoother contemporaries Flatt and Scruggs would have sounded like if they had thought to put an accomplished female vocalist in the band.

Basically, if you like basic bluegrass, this record will ingratiate itself with you so fast that, before you know it, it will feel like an old friend. Nixon, who is not flashy, is just damn good. Drive, her backing group, is quite the same.

The songs are uniformly well chosen and -- except for the Dallas Frazier warhorse "Beneath Still Waters" -- little known. "One Small Miracle," a Steve Wariner/Bill Anderson composition, is one small miracle of a song, of both divine deliverance and romantic desperation, and wrenchingly affecting on each level. There are two splendid Tom T. and Dixie Hall tunes, "Harlan" and "Joan Henry." The former, less unabashedly celebratory than it seems at first listening, ought to be heard alongside Patty Loveless's searing "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," the Darrell Scott song from her much-praised Mountain Soul (Epic, 2001). "Joan Henry," whose hero is John Henry's daughter, is rather better than the gimmicky novelty exercise its title would suggest.

Nixon sometimes hands over lead-vocal duties to her mandolin player, Vernon Hughes ("Bee's in the Hive," "In My Mind to Wander"), and to bassist Jim Green (the captivating gospel tune "Step Into the Water," "Hello Operator"). They sound just fine, too.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 10 October 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.