Joe Ross,
Bluegrass Alphabet
(Zephyr, 2008)

Though better known as a bluegrass journalist and critic, Joe Ross occasionally releases a CD of his own compositions, with the help of his many friends in bluegrass and roots music.

Ross's songwriting is solid and sturdy, and many of the songs on Bluegrass Alphabet are good enough to deserve a presence in the larger bluegrass repertoire. Ross's approach brings to mind that of a longtime favorite of mine, Bill Clifton, who had a taste for the sorts of heart songs -- anthems of home, place, family, love lost or found, religious sentiment -- that practically defined the Carter Family catalogue. Like Clifton, Ross's is not a voice one ordinarily associates with bluegrass. The two (Clifton is no longer active) have always gone into the studio with first-rate bands to cut records that one is unlikely to mistake for anybody else's.

While Clifton had a soft, smooth voice, Ross's is rough around the edges, a limited albeit serviceable instrument. Of course, persons who demand technically perfect voices aren't the sort who are drawn to roots singers anyway. To me, Ross's voice feels warm and conversational, and it serves the songs, themselves plain-spoken and direct, effectively.

Among my favorite cuts, however, is the one non-original, a gorgeously conceived instrumental arrangement -- owing more to neo-Celtic music than to bluegrass -- of the well-known folksong "My Bonnie." The title song, by the way, was inspired by the traditional "The Sailor's Alphabet" but is an entirely separate piece. Unlike many bluegrass writers, Ross's knowledge of related roots forms nicely expands and informs his composer's vocabulary.

review by
Jerome Clark

22 November 2008

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