Chris Jones & the Night Drivers Run Away Tonight (Mountain Home)
With an immediately identifiable sound and a burgeoning catalog of stellar albums, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are possibly bluegrass music’s most underrated band.
With Run Away Tonight, that has to change.
Front-loaded with six original songs—seldom seen in an industry still tied to the tried, tested, and true—Run Away Tonight is the bluegrass album of this summer.
Reminding listeners of no one as much as the legendary Country Gentlemen, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers perform bluegrass music with heart and drive. The heart comes from the depth of intensity revealed in every phrase and note sung by Jones, the New York native who has as rounded a bluegrass resume as one might imagine—expert guitarist, sideman, bandleader, songwriter, producer, broadcaster, gently acerbic humorist, playful photographer, rodeo clown, and curler…only one of those is fictional, I think.
The drive begins with Jones’ strong rhythm and lead work, nicely featured in the mix here, and continues through Jon Weisberger’s propulsive bass rhythm playing off Ned Luberecki’s classic 5-string approach and Mark Stoffel’s exquisite mandolin touch. Kudos to Jones and his co-producer Tim Surrett (Balsam Range) and Scott Barnett for this excellent sounding bluegrass experience—listening to this recording on a solid system is a sonic treat.
With an emphasis on the deceptively upbeat aspect of bluegrass, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers kick things off with the court and spark of “Laurie,” from which the album takes its title. With the outcome unspoken—one imagines—in old-time tradition, the guy is left hanging. Similarly, “Tonight I’m Gonna Ride” feels lively and freewheeling, but is appears as much about failed aspirations and last chances as it is the fulfilment of a dream; Jones first recorded this train song in 2000. Casey Driessen, a Jones colleague from long ago, contributes vigorous fiddle to these two songs.
Jones knows his way around the saddest of country songs, and “Dust Off the Pain” should go down with his best compositions. One can’t help but be aware of the miseries of life coursing through the veins of the hard-luck protagonist as he makes one more attempt at love “waiting just around the bend,” and Luberecki’s banjo playing on this one is especially riveting. A different phase of heartbreak is explored within “She’s Just About to Say Goodbye,” one of a pair of songs featuring label-mates Brooke and Darin Aldridge.
On the wonderfully structured “One Night in Paducah,” Jones’ foreboding approach conveys the protagonist’s downfall long before he wakes with “neither love nor money.” Luberecki’s “Bowties are Cool” is a deftly structured instrumental, while Stoffel’s “Shelby 8” is just cool: love how the guitar and mandolin notes leap off the strings on this one.
Jones has never hidden his appreciation for country songs encountered in his youth and Tom T. Hall, and the two come together on a nice cover of “Pinto the Wonder Horse Is Dead,” a nostalgic song that has always appealed for its universality. Those born in the last forty years may not quite ‘get it,’ but the rest of us certainly do.
One would be remiss overlooking the beauty of the Night Drivers’ rendition of “Thinking About You;” featuring fine fiddle from Bobby Hicks and Del McCoury’s always welcome tenor; this sad ‘un is a definite keeper and should receive an abundance of deserved airplay.
Closing with the hope and faith of the Jones-Donna Ulisse co-write “My Portion and My Cup,” Run Away Tonight is a ideally constructed bluegrass album, reverent to the foundations and traditions of the music but continually moving toward its bright and invigorating future.
I have long advocated that Chris Jones’ name needs to be inserted into the conversations around Male Vocalist of the Year. Perhaps next time up, the professional members of the IBMA will agree with me. The Night Drivers are as good a band as there is, in my opinion.
I’ve written about Chris Jones & the Night Drivers previously: here, here, and here. Oh, and here, too.
I’ve updated my 2009 review of Sam Bush’s Circles Around Me as the latest installment of my (infrequent) Gold…in a way series of archival reviews. It is posted over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.
Fiddle & Banjo
Tunes from the North-Songs From the South
This has been a great summer for roots music.
Whether the folk and alt-folk (whatever the frick that is) sounds of Norma MacDonald and Nick Ferrio, troubling, dark, and challenging sounds from the likes of Rodney DeCroo, Brock Zeman, and Gordie Tentrees, or breezy, fresh bluegrass from Dale Ann Bradley, the Slocan Ramblers, and Shotgun Holler, there has been no shortage of new roots music for the adventurous listener. Sometimes great things have been missed on first (and fifth) listen, such as the swirling, swampy, harp-based blues of Grant Dermody, the sweet and elemental music of The Honey Dewdrops, and the Appalachian honky tonk of the Honeycutters. Eventually, like most elements of quality, what you need to hear eventually makes itself known.
More than anything else though, this summer has been marked by the number of exceptional old-time sounding albums coming my way. Whether a traditional, mountain-based banjo release from Kaia Kater, a mid-western song cycle celebrating and anthologizing the plains from Jami Lynn, or a ‘grassopolitain set from the Lonesome Trio, old-time has been well represented these past several weeks.
Just to be clear, I had never heard of Kaia Kater or Jami Lynn a month ago, but now I can’t imagine them not being part of my musical soundtrack. Another amazing album released this summer comes from the equally (to me) unfamiliar Canadian duo, Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack. And yet again I am left wondering, How did I go this long without hearing for these folks?
Recording as Fiddle & Banjo, this duo is remarkable. Karrnnel Sawitsky plays the fiddle, and having been raised on the vibrant music found within the celebratory environs of Saskatchewan (barn dances, weddings, community hall performances, and the like), plays in a range of styles depending on the needs of the tune or song. Daniel Koulack is a clawhammer banjo performer from Winnipeg, and coaxes evocative phrases from his 5-string.
With an album title of Tunes from the North-Songs From the South providing the framework, the expectations from the resulting album are fairly clear. Fiddle & Banjo doesn’t disappoint with tunes that capture the Métis, Quebecois, and mid-eastern Canadian fiddling traditions of our country while embracing southern influences throughout including on a few original compositions.
The sounds can be pensive and calming (“Waltz of Life,” a Sawitsky tune), soothing (“Lullabye,” from Koulack”), and lively and festive (“The Old French Set,” a trio of traditional pieces including the “Red River Jig.”) From the playing of Saskatchewan Métis fiddling legend John Arcand comes “The Woodchuck Set” featuring “Indian At the Woodchuck,” “Old Reel of 8,” and “The Arkansas Traveller”: I’m not sure old-time, traditional sounds get better than this four-minute festival of fiddling and frailing.
Pushing Tunes from the North-Songs From the South over the top are five songs featuring the voice of Joey Landreth of the Juno-winning The Bros. Landreth. “Red Rocking Chair” is lonesome and mournful, buoyed by the lively instrumentation, with “How Does a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and “Killin’ Floor” suitably dark and bluesy. The highlight for me may be the spritely rendition of “Little Birdie,” although “Groundhog” comes a close second.
Kaia Kater, The Slocan Ramblers, and now Fiddle & Banjo have moved Canadian old-time music making to the fore this summer. Hopefully we’re ready for this explosion of artful, contemporary talents.
Sincere thanks for tracking down Fervor Coulee. Donald
Over at the Lonesome Road Review, we did something different a couple weeks ago by reviewing three excellent albums in one piece. The latest albums from singer-songwriters Brock Zeman, Gordie Tentrees, and Rodney DeCroo are the focus, and all I can say is, Wow! What a slate of discs- personal, introspective, and poetically charming. Yup, we have great singers and writers up this way, no doubt.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
My review of the debut album from the rather high-profile The Lonesome Trio is posted at Country Standard Time. I quite like what they do although some may think the songs sound a little too similar to each other. Rather, I think they have a real nice bluegrass groove going. Another excellent recording out of Asheville! For the first time ever, I’m writing a post just when the artist-in this case 1/3 of the Trio, Ed Helms-pops up on my television screen. Momentarily jarring.
The music isn’t.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
The Honeycutters Me Oh My Organic Records
Bands work hard to capture their music within a memorable tagline, and mostly these are ignored by all but the most desperate of writers. Seldom does the message resonate past the top of a webpage.
The exception appears to be that of The Honeycutters because “Appalachian Honky Tonk” fair nails the head.
The Asheville, NC quintet released their third long player this spring, and as happens it took a while to percolate to the top of the Fervor Coulee desk. I did listen to it a couple or three times upon receipt, but must have been distracted by something shiny elsewhere since I didn’t give Me Oh My its due.
Thank goodness for lazy afternoons on the deck, because this is an exceptional album that I have grown to appreciate.
While there is much to consider within, I think what finally got me were lines from “All You Ever”: “And now it’s just the same damn thing/You fail like you’ve been practicing/Everything you ever tried to be was just a fantasy/King of all the hypocrites/Every day the same old thing/Well ain’t you getting sick of it.”
Now there’s a frog on the table for ya to consider. (The online lyric sheet inserts a rhyming expletive in place of the final ‘thing’ in that exchange.)
Largely acoustic, The Honeycutters utilize instruments to construct an aggressive honky tonk country sound that is quite miraculous. Tal Taylor (mandolin), Matt Smith (pedal steel and reso), Rick Cooper (bass), and Josh Milligan (drums, percussion, and most of the vocal harmony) provide the group’s formidable instrumental backbone, while powerful vocalist Amanda Anne Platt fronts the group.
Basically, this is unapologetic hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll. In the hands of others, a song like “Edge of the Frame” would be a FM radio staple, but The Honeycutters place a wistfulness within their songs that can only emanate from country roots: had it been released in 1995, “Jukebox” might have been a CMT hit. Free of the navel-gazing moodiness and egocentrism permeating much of contemporary Americana, Platt’s songs ring with the authenticity of lived truths. This is commercial country twenty years too late to be mainstream.
Songs like “Not that Simple” and “Ain’t it the Truth” speak to the crux of infidelity and settling, whereas “Wedding Song” flips the plot, giving hope to those trapped in misery: “When you found me I was broken clear in two/My heart was split wide open, tired of hoping, tired of playing the fool./But you did what I thought nobody could do/You pieced me back together/kissed the hurting parts, made me new.”
The album’s strongest song, if not most accessible, is one Fred Eaglesmith and Greg Trooper might be proud to own. “Hearts of Men” artfully captures the troubled darkness that seeps through one’s mind during long, lonely drives. Here Platt constructs a short story in song, a sketch that is impactful in description and significant in emotional heft, punctuated by an atmosphere created of pedal steel and Telecaster.
Elsewhere, the truths jabs in the dark, quick fatal stabs of poetic insight. “I’m tired of the truth, I’m tired of pretending” is sung in “I’ll Be Loving You” while the title track offers, “I had a baby but the good Lord took her/She was an angel but her wings were crooked/I guess he figured he could love her better than me.”
Me Oh My is an album that should have immediately appealed to me, rich as it is in the rural roots of country, folk, and ‘grass. That it didn’t is entirely on me. I’m grateful it was patient with me, holding off the others until I could feel its soul.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald