Trinity River Band,
Better Than Blue
(Orange Blossom, 2014)

True North,
(independent, 2014)

The first great family band in country music consisted of A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter. Of course, the Carter Family wouldn't be considered "country" by modern definition. Its influence is more easily discerned in bluegrass than in the Nashville mainstream, where I suspect only a few current acts have more than a foggy idea of who the Carters were and what they represented, namely a link to authentic Southern mountain musical traditions.

The five members of the Trinity River Band belong to the Harris family of Callahan, Florida. They owe more to the model of Alison Krauss's bluegrass-pop than to the Carters' folk ballads or, for that matter, to the hard-driving first-generation sound of Bill Monroe. In short, TRB's is not your grandfather's bluegrass, or maybe even your father's. My tastes, to be upfront, run to that kind of stuff. Of course I understand that nothing stays the same and that bluegrass, like all music, needs to open itself to innovation in order to survive and stay fresh.

Which is to say that if you like your bluegrass with some pop touches, you'll like Better Than Blue, which has all the bluegrass basics: vocals, harmonies, solid picking. The song selection, originals and covers (the latter from veteran genre writers such as Carl Jackson/Lucinda Crosby, Larry Cordle/Lisa Shaffer and Mark Brinkman/Paula Breedlove), is generally pretty decent. The traditional Irish "Willie & Mary" is the one big surprise, and it's nicely done. Nothing in TRB's arrangement, however, dissuades me, the father of a daughter, from the long-held conviction that Holly Dunn's "Daddy's Hands" is borderline creepy.

From all the way across the country in the Pacific Northwest, True North, not merely a family band, is a families band, consisting of married couples Dale & Susan Pearce Adkins and Dan Wetzel & Kristen Grainger. Whatever you may hear, it is not a bluegrass outfit, notwithstanding a single bluegrass cut (an original titled "Shiny Black Shoes"). Elsebound is basically singer-songwritery folk-pop, mostly originals courtesy of Grainger. Nobody's more cynical about, or frankly tired of, singer-songwritery folk-pop than I am, but even so, I'm pleased to report that Grainger is an exceptionally gifted composer able to fashion stick-in-your-ears melodies. The tastefully low-key stringband arrangements and the tuneful harmonies consistently please.

To the extent that "roots," adjective or noun, applies to what's going on here, it's in the instruments: mandolin, banjos, acoustic guitars. Perhaps, too, in the cover of Shane Nicholson/Kasey Chambers's "Rattlin' Bones," which is showing up often enough these days that it seems happily on its way to status as a neo-oldtime standard.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 September 2014

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