Where Roads Divide
(Pinecastle, 2003)

Like most young bluegrass bands, the Knoxville-based Wildfire fuses traditional sounds with more modern ones, or vice versa. You might call the results post-newgrass. In Darrell Webb (mandolin) and Robert Hale (guitar) -- both of whom performed with Dolly Parton on her most recent bluegrass outing, Halos & Horns (Sugar Hill, 2002) -- it lays claims to two superior vocalists. On the more retro-sounding material, the band rolls along on a pleasingly muscular sound, driven by the hard-edged rhythms of Barry Crabtree's banjo and some tasty, tight high harmonies.

If for no other reason this album would endear itself to me simply for its inclusion of Bill Anderson's wonderful "The Lord Knows I'm Drinking," which I haven't heard since it was a hit for Cal Smith in the early 1970s. As mind-your-own-business songs go -- a little-remarked-on but worthy musical genre -- this one is as good as it gets. It's also a witty celebration both of human imperfection and of the enduring hope that someday we'll do better. Wildfire's rendition proves that this classic honkytonk tune was just waiting to go bluegrass.

"Somewhere Down the Road," on the other hand, has the feeling of a Gordon Lightfoot composition successfully transformed into hard-core bluegrass. Less happily, "Livin' Like There's No Tomorrow," by Nashville hacks Jim McBride and Roger Murrah (Murrah wrote the insipid, hugely successful Coke jingle "I Want to Teach the World to Sing"), in a different arrangement could be a hit in what passes for country music these days. That's no compliment, but Wildfire manages to make the best of it; in other words to keep it, if only for now, from hat-act hell. It's followed by "All Because of Me," co-written by Webb, a song that Bill Monroe himself would have been proud of.

From the evidence of Roads, Wildfire is already among the more interesting young bluegrass outfits and bears watching. When you see their CD is dedicated to Jesus, you know they're hanging from the true vine. If this is not exactly an essential album, it offers the sort of modest but honest pleasure one experiences in first-rate minor poetry, and there's nothing wrong with that.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 7 June 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.