(Mountain Roads, 2009)
It wasn't all that long ago -- or anyway, it feels that way to me -- that nearly all bluegrass bands were named So-and-So and the geographical-feature (mountain, valley, river) or political-unit (state, county, town) boys. It was rock bands, at least after the mid-1960s, that claimed the one-word singular names. These days, though, bluegrass outfits can call themselves just about anything that pleases them. Such as, in the present instance, Pathway.
Not to fear; the distance between Pathway and Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys -- masters of smooth, confident, melodic traditional 'grass in whose pathway Pathway walks -- is as short as any distance between two points can be. The band hails from the musically affluent Mount Airy, North Carolina (hometown to Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry) and is signed to the reliable bluegrass/oldtime label Mountain Roads. You'd think that with a combination like that, failure would not be an option, and you'd be right.
At its core Pathway is a family band, formed around the Freeman brothers Mark (banjo, guitar), Mitchell (bass), Scott (fiddle) and Mark's son Justin (guitar), along with friends Casey Byrd (dobro, guitar) and Jake Long (mandolin). Four of the group's members share lead vocals, an indication of how unusually well-endowed Pathway is in that department. The instrumental chops are clean, to the point, and devoid of pretense, doing what they need to do and no more -- which means that the pickers are so good that they don't bother to remind you.
All but four of the 15 cuts are originals. If a name like Pathway suggests a Christian message to you, you won't be surprised at the abundance of gospel material; in fact, there's even a song (written by Mark) called "Pathway." But there are as many secular numbers. Sacred or profane, the songs are stellar: beautifully sung with solid lyrics and strong melodies, and sailing on heavenly harmonies.
There is also the obligatory, if always welcome, Tom T. & Dixie Hall song, without which it is apparently now illegal to release a bluegrass album. This one -- "They Don't Make Girls Like Ruby Anymore" (written with Keith Bilbry) -- is Tom T. Hall's second concerning a young woman with that name, though the extroverted, sunny Ruby here will never be confused with the enigmatic, aloof "Ravishing Ruby" known to all connoisseurs of country music at its most Olympian.
The CD concludes with an imaginatively conceived modern arrangement of the centuries-old fiddle tune "Soldier's Joy." It will make you feel good, and as you reflect that this is only Pathway's first album, the thought of the next will make you feel even better.
6 June 2009
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