Missy Werner,
Turn This Heart Around
(independent, 2014)

Jim & Lynna Woolsey,
The Road That Brings You Home
(Broken Record, 2014)

Like jazz, bluegrass is a music you'd better not play if you're not very good at it. Some styles are not demanding of technical excellence, but technical excellence is at the heart of jazz and bluegrass. Not that it's all they're about, of course. You also need strong material to work with.

Missy Werner, a young, well-regarded mandolin player from Cincinnati, has a terrific singing voice which, when she has a good song, is a powerful instrument indeed. She boasts a top-flight band. Turn This Heart Around sounds good, too. Bluegrass veteran Jon Weisberger produces, creating a lively, warm vibe that succeeds to particularly striking effect on an instrumental like band-banjoist Jeff Roberts' "Snake in the Grass." You will have no problem listening to this album with pleasure. Only....

I just wish the material were more consistent. I understand perfectly well that Werner is not exactly a tradition-based bluegrasser. For one thing, her voice isn't suited to it, as contrast Rhonda Vincent's, which moves fluidly between the traditional and the contemporary. For another, several of the songs seem, well, vapid, In other arrangements they could be the sort of pop-dreck that passes, at least as a market proposition, for "country" these days. Worse, the worst offender is no less than the opening cut, Ashby Frank's "I Always Do," which musically and lyrically has all the substance of mist.

Fortunately, there are some more robust cuts. You can never go wrong with Eric Gibson ("Rocks in the River") on this side of modernity, Carter Stanley ("I Just Got Wise") on the other side of tradition. Larry Cordle and Erin Enderlin's "Dead Man Walking" would have made for a great George Jones performance, but Jones wouldn't have committed the error of pronouncing the indefinite article "a" (pronounced "uh" in normal spoken communication) as the affected, off-putting "ay" (as in "ay dead man walking"). The result is less the story it's intended to be, and more a tone-deaf recitation which draws attention only to itself.

While Jim & Lynna Woolsey's The Road That Takes You Home consists entirely of original material, I doubt that any listener will complain. The Woolseys lean heavily tradition-ward, with solid oldtime harmonies in the service of interesting tales, mostly true ones I gather, about small-town and rural folks getting by, against sorrow and hardship, on courage, pluck and hard work. And no, none of this collapses into sappiness. These are believable people and recognizable situations. The couple's matter-of-fact approach serves them well.

Musically, Road hovers between bluegrass and older rural styles, including authentic folk music. It's also touchingly sincere. The Woolseys live in small-town Indiana, presumably in the company of a fair number of Southern transplants. Indiana is as much Southern as Midwestern, and as such the breeding ground for lots of good bluegrass, country and stringband music. The Woolseys have absorbed it all and refashioned it into their own charming style.

I don't know how many songs have been written around the title "Runaway Train" -- a fair number, I imagine; the late John Stewart's was a hit for Rosanne Cash in 1988 -- and there's one here. It just happens to be better than most of the rest. It ought to be a bluegrass standard.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 September 2014

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