Joe Ross,
The Spirit of St. Louis
(Zephyr, 2007)

Joe Ross is not a fulltime musician, but his bluegrass journalism and criticism are well known to those who read the genre press. From time to time, calling on the services of his many friends in bluegrass, he releases an album of his own. On this one he alternates on guitar, bass and other instruments, and brings along such luminaries as the James King Band, Cedar Hill, Ron Stewart, autoharp master Bryan Bowers and more. Not surprisingly, the picking and the arrangements are consistently tasteful.

The Spirit of St. Louis represents his own distinctive take, which in his approach has an unmistakable regional accent -- not Southeastern, where bluegrass grew up and which remains its heartland, but Northwestern, where Ross lives. In other words, this is not the high-lonesome sound of Bill Monroe or the deep-mountain soul of Ralph Stanley, but a kind of North American ballad music with bluegrass accompaniment. Though Ross's modest (if always warm) vocal gifts don't match either, broadly speaking, in terms of themes and melodies he brings the likes of Wilf Carter and Hank Snow, Canada's two leading contributions to country music, to mind. Listen to his "Logger's Song" and "The River in Oregon," and you'll hear what I mean.

Ross's limitations are apparent in some lesser songs, such as "My Heart Remembers Yesterday," where his singing just isn't up to the melody. The song itself, another Ross composition, is pleasant enough but also rather stale in sentiment. On the other hand, the title piece -- about Charles Lindbergh's fabled 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic -- is a creative concept (if there's another bluegrass song on the subject, I am unaware of it), and it's appealingly executed. Another high point is an instrumental, the beautiful Maritimes folk tune "St. Anne's Reel," with koto, pennywhistle, autoharp and bass -- no bluegrass here, in other words. Ross slows the ordinarily sprightly pace to mid-tempo, to very happy effect.

Overall, the album's occasional imperfections -- none fatal -- amount to a good part of its charm, affording it a cheery, homemade feeling a long way from the sterility of too much too-perfect bluegrass. Ross is clearly a talented composer and an amiable soul, and Spirit will have you liking both the song and the singer.

by Jerome Clark
3 February 2007

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