Frank Solivan,
Family, Friends & Heroes
(Compass, 2016)

Jason Wilber,
(WilberTone, 2016)

If not a conventional bluegrass musician by some definitions, mandolinist Frank Solivan, raised in Alaska and now residing in Washington, D.C., has been embraced by the genre's establishment and audience. It is probably not difficult to imagine what bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe would have thought of this, but of course Solivan, who is manifestly a talented guy, deserves to be judged on his own merits.

For much of bluegrass' seven-decade history, its listeners have thought of it as a music based in rural traditions, especially the Appalachian sound, though as it's grown and expanded around the world much of bluegrass has incorporated outside elements. There's 'grass on Family, Friends & Heroes, and it's the good stuff (e.g., Solivan's tuneful original "I am a Rambler," Bill Browning's "Dark Hollow," the immortal folk hymn "Wayfaring Stranger"), but also material that Solivan doesn't even try to dress in bluegrass clothing (Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman," for one). The larger part of this album consists of varieties of pop: pure pop, country-pop, folk-pop. Basically, this is a collection of songs Solivan likes, associating many with warm memories of the sorts of people to whom the title tips its hat.

Fortunately, the songs are nicely picked in both senses of the verb, though in the "chosen" sense I confess that I could easily live out the rest of my life without hearing Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" again; not a bad song, understand, but just heard rather more often than I would have preferred. And I have never favored either John Denver or "Leaving on a Jet Plane." But that's only two of the 14 cuts, and there are plenty of pleasant surprises, among them the closing cut, the sweet, Hawaiian-flavored "Are You Missing Me?" written by Solivan's late aunt and uncle Norma and Charles Bell, both (so Solivan informs us) "registered in the Western Swing Hall of Fame."

Counted among the album's virtues is the presence of some of bluegrass' most revered figures. I'm speaking here of Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Jim Hurst, Del and Ronnie McCoury, and more. Unless you're a misanthropic soul who objects to melodic songs tastily rendered, you'll easily warm to this disc. Even if he wouldn't have admitted it, I suspect that Bill Monroe would have, too.

"What you don't know about women is a lot," the Olympia Dukakis character tells the John Mahoney character in Norman Jewison's classic romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987). I guess what I don't know about pop music -- after the 1960s, anyway, when I stopped paying much attention to it -- is also a lot. Which explains why I recognize only three of the 11 numbers on Jason Wilber's Echoes, consisting mostly of acoustic covers of songs by (I see here) the late David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder and other dwellers of the pop cosmos. Wilber is most often noted as John Prine's longtime lead guitarist, but he's a well-regarded musician generally, a player on albums by the likes of Greg Brown and Iris DeMent, a producer of others' records, and a host of his own radio show.

Though I don't recall hearing most of the original versions, I can attest that -- if I may judge solely from Wilber's arrangements -- these are solidly crafted songs. His vocals are strong and persuasive, the arrangements solid. I also suppose that on their initial appearances most didn't sound much like folk-pop songs, as they do here, though Jagger-Richards' "As Tears Go By," long ago a hit for a very young Marianne Faithfull, was always such. It's a treat to hear it again, and to hear Wilber's creative reinterpretation of the Prine warhorse "Paradise," which if it weren't for the familiar lyrics you'd think was another song altogether.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 May 2016

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