The Skylighters,
The Skylighters
(Red Beet, 2006)

A word or two of explanation: There is a Nashville-based Americana band called Last Train Home. While I have heard of it, I have not heard any of its recordings. I learn from the promotional material that the Skylighters are a sort of side-project for LTH: three members (Eric Brace, J. Carson Gray and Martin Lynds) joining forces with two key figures in bluegrass and acoustic country: the revered dobro master Mike Auldridge and the veteran mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, who has picked with just about everybody, from the Country Gentlemen to Robin & Linda Williams. On a solo album released early in 2006, Gaudreau recorded "Rumble," a song I co-wrote with the Williamses.

The Skylighters consists of 14 tastefully chosen songs of the sort one might expect to encounter on a Country Gentlemen or Seldom Scene disc. They range from folk-oriented material to traditional country to older melodic pop tunes. But unlike the Gentlemen or the Scene, the Skylighters are not a bluegrass band, even if bluegrass influences are all over the place. Besides the acoustic instruments, there's some electric guitar (by Gaudreau), some steel guitar (Auldridge), drums and percussion (Lynds) and even a dash of accordion (guest Jen Gunderman). If you're asking for some characterization of the Skylighters' sound, country-folk is close enough.

It would take a stern disposition indeed to resist such abundantly evident charm as dazzles in these grooves. Take, for example, the Western-swing arrangement of "Napoleon's Retreat," the melody (with embellishments) drawn from the antique fiddle tune, with lyrics added a century and a half later by Peewee King and Redd Stewart, who together also wrote "Tennessee Waltz." The lyrics are dumb, yet amiably so. The Skylighters' arrangement swings and shines, beaming through LTH's Eric Brace's light-tenor vocal nestled alongside bouncy mandolin (Gaudreau) and steel (Auldridge) interludes.

In another nice touch, the band resurrects the minor 1962 pop hit "Dear One," by Larry Finnegan, also co-author of the song. Though I recognized it instantly, I was also surprised it was still somewhere in memory. Unlike many other period pieces that the oldies industry has driven well past their expiration date, "Dear One" has faded into the ghostliest of recall. It deserves a better fate. "Dear One" tells its sad, simple story -- the narrator receives a Dear John letter from a now-departed but obviously kind-hearted girlfriend -- atop an unfancy but distinctive melody that lingers agreeably in the listener's psychic jukebox.

In common with many bluegrass groups, the Skylighters are fond of the Louvin Brothers. No fewer than three LB compositions show up here -- "Are You Wasting My Time," "I Wish You Knew" and "Are You All Alone?" (this last known as well from the Jim & Jesse recording familiar to any bluegrass fan) -- plus Hazel Houser's "My Baby's Gone," the LBs' cover of which rode high on the country charts of 1958. The folk-based material includes a version of Eric Andersen's "Close the Door Lightly," from the sound of it inspired less by Andersen's original than by the subsequent version the Dillards cut in their late-1960s country-rock period. Norman Blake's melancholy ballad "Last Train from Poor Valley," done in neo-bluegrass style in 1972 on the Seldom Scene's fabled first album, rides again in high style.

The Skylighters aren't just playing music, they're casting spells. This is one powerful and lovely recording.

by Jerome Clark
27 January 2007