Adam Steffey,
Here to Stay
(Mountain Home, 2016)

Rented Room on Broadway
(Pinecastle, 2016)

Mandolinist Adam Steffey has won an almost ridiculous number of awards in his career as a bluegrass musician. Here to Stay will tell you why.

First of all, it's an unusually intelligent album. I don't ordinarily think one way or another of the IQ level of a bluegrass disc, usually attuned more to bedrock emotions than to cooler reflections. Yet the sound of Steffey's new solo album -- he's currently a member of the popular Boxcars -- attests to smartness and taste in overall tone and indeed in every lick. There is also his expressive baritone voice, attached to unfailingly strong material, e.g., Tex Ritter's sly kiss-off song "Dear John," the Wilburn Brothers' noir-flavored "The Town That Never Sleeps" and Billy Ray Reynolds's melodic, melancholic "Cloudy Days."

The instrumental pieces do not fade into the background, as they so often do with their counterparts on other bluegrass recordings. Too often, bluegrass instrumentals come across as mere picking workouts. It's true that the standout, the old hymn Steffey identifies as "Come Thou Fount" (full title "Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings"), benefits from some studio wizardry ("half a dozen layered mandolin parts," it says here), but I can't imagine that anyone is going to complain. It's just a flat-out breath-taker.

I understand that Steffey has laid down other versions of most of these dozen cuts on albums with previous outfits, most famously Alison Krauss & Union Station, with which he's been associated. While I hear a lot of bluegrass, I don't hear everything; thus, all of this, at least as Steffey stuff, is news to me. I suspect that he's reworked these songs and tunes sufficiently that they'll seem fresh even to those conversant in the earlier drafts. Here to Stay manages to blend modern and traditional approaches just about as expertly as anyone could hope.

The five-member Wildfire has been around since 2000, not with all of the same personnel of course. In that time it has defined and expanded a sound that, if it's not Stanley Brothers redux, can be called traditional bluegrass if in a contemporary context. Guitarist Robert Hale's vocals are clear and assured, and the band's harmonies are close and sharp. No question, these veterans are never less than in full command.

Among the dozen cuts on Rented Room on Broadway, Elmer Burchett Jr.'s "Dollar," among the most capably crafted of recent bluegrass songs, shows up as if intended for Wildfire all along, though other bands have covered it, too. Jerry Chesnut (his last name is misspelled in the credits) wrote "They Don't Make 'Em Like My Daddy Anymore" for Loretta Lynn. It gets a decent enough treatment here. I can't help wishing, however, that Wildfire had chosen instead another Chesnut composition, "A Good Year for the Roses" (originally done by George Jones), which would have forced it to stretch its talents. I have no doubt that even with Jones as competitor, the band could have left us with something worthwhile. One of my very favorite country songs, "Good Year" is astonishingly absent a single cliche even though it addresses the ever-popular theme of marital collapse. Beyond that, it has to be noted that the would-be plot twist in Don Choate's "The Ghost of Jim Bob Wilson" doesn't make much sense. Even so, it's given an effective arrangement, perhaps best appreciated if you don't listen too attentively to the lyrics.

As often as it's been recorded, one can never object to Carter Stanley's "Nobody's Love is Like Mine." The boys of Wildfire don't falter for a second. At the other extreme they're just as at home with "The Letter," the Box Tops' pop-rock hit from 1967.

music review by
Jerome Clark

17 December 2016

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