various artists,
The Grass is Always Bluer
(Nettwerk, 2004)

As I cannot profess to be a bluegrass aficionado I thought I'd once again start a review with a definition and work from there. The American Heritage dictionary defines bluegrass as a style of folk music that "originated in the southern United States, typically played on banjos and guitars and characterized by rapid tempos and jazz-like improvisation." And while there isn't much on The Grass is Always Bluer that I'd call "jazz-like" there are plenty of banjos and guitars (and mandolins and fiddles) and lots of southern twang in the vocals, even among the Canadian contributors to this disc.

There are a couple of big names among the artists featured on The Grass is Always Bluer including Emmylou Harris, who is represented by the song "Deeper Well" from her 1995 album Wrecking Ball. The song is a treat, lush and beautifully produced by Daniel Lanois. "Bible and a Gun" by Jason Ringenberg and Steve Earle, the Jayhawks' "Stumbling Through the Dark" and the title track from Lucinda Williams' 1998 Grammy Award-winning album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road also lend some recognition value to an album that is primarily a vehicle for newer acts. Nettwerk's own Shelley Campbell, Nathan and Old Crow Medicine Show may be relatively fresh faces on the bluegrass scene, but they each hold their own here.

My favorite tracks on The Grass is Always Bluer include the beautifully rough-edged "Rain and Snow" by the Be Good Tanyas and "Down by the Quarry" by Oh Susanna (Suzie Ungerleider), a song with the sort of barely restrained passion that would feel right at home on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Both of these Canadian acts demonstrate how the visceral simplicity of bluegrass has managed to capture the imaginations of musicians and audiences well beyond its perceived borders. "The Rooster Moans" by Iron & Wine (a.k.a. Sam Beam) is another standout track, one that's about as spare as possible. The double tracked, hauntingly breathy vocals are laid over a simple guitar and banjo line. When the slide guitar joins the instrumentation between verses the result is hypnotic.

If The Grass is Always Bluer has a significant weakness it's that it's too languid, too downbeat. All but one song clocks in below 100 beats per minute. A couple of up-tempo tracks would have helped this collection give a more well-rounded picture of the bluegrass genre. As it stands only "Tell It to Me" by Old Crow Medicine Show, with its dual banjos and blasts of harmonica, comes anywhere near a "rapid tempo" (157 bpm). But if you can forgive the disc for not causing you to break out in a sweat on the dance floor, The Grass is Always Bluer is a wonderful introduction to some talented young folk and bluegrass musicians, with just enough star power mixed in for variety.

"Found I had a thirst that I could not quell, looking for the water from a deeper well," sings Emmylou Harris. The Grass is Always Bluer is indeed a deeper well in which to slake your thirst for the new and blue. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the album are directed to Sweet Relief, a musicians' health fund.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 17 October 2004

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