Mark Chesnutt and Summertown Road reviews

Over at the Lonesome Road Review, two new reviews have been posted. I’ve been enjoying the Mark Chesnutt album for a few weeks while the Summertown Road album has been kicking around for several  months. Both albums are worth checking out, depending on your tastes. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.

Mark Chesnutt
Saguaro Road Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Once among the most successful of country-chart cowboys, for most of the last decade Mark Chesnutt has plied his trade with a series of independent, Texas-based labels. More a testament to the state of the industry than diminishing talents on the part of the Beaumont-based neo-traditionalist, Chesnutt has still managed a few chart appearances since his last Top Ten hit, 1999’s #1 “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”

Never afraid of looking back, Chesnutt’s new project embraces the obvious stylings of Waylon Jennings in a way that makes previous Chesnutt tributes to Jennings appear subtle in comparison. While ostensibly a tip of the hat to the outlaw movement of the ’70s—Kris, Willie, Jerry Jeff, Coe, Shaver, et al.—Chesnutt’s vocal phrasing and song choices make Outlaw an album that reeks of spilled beer and sawdust, with eight of the 12 songs once recorded by Jennings.

Chesnutt knows his way around a shufflin’, honky-tonkin’ ballad better than most. While some of the song choices are too obvious—“Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Desperados Waiting for a Train”, and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” have likely been recorded enough times—others are more inspired. Seldom-heard gems like “Freedom to Stay” and “Need A Little Time Off for Bad Behavior” are appreciated.

“A Couple More Years,” done as a duet with Amber Digby, is stellar, and I’m not sure a bad version of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose”—“The devil made me do it the first time / the second time I done it on my own”—is even possible.

Chesnutt’s vocal abilities have not faded; he hits all the notes and can twist a lyrical phrase as well as his heroes did in their prime. Outlaw is evidence that while Nashville may turn its back on stars, the singers continue to create the only thing they know: real country music.

Summertown Road
Summertown Road
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

One of the most anticipated releases from a new band this year is produced by Kentucky-based Summertown Road. Bringing a balanced approach to bluegrass, one that embraces both traditional and contemporary influences, Summertown Road has not necessarily been an easy highway.

No sooner had Rounder Records prepared the album for release but co-lead vocalist, fiddler, and mandolinist John Rigsby departed the outfit. The band has pushed on, supporting the album with a fairly heavy slate of performances.

Produced by Don Rigsby, Summertown Road is an adequate but not astounding album. Stronger debuts have been made, but the songs included well showcase the vocal and instrumental talents of the band members. Working in the band’s favor is that two-thirds of the material is band-written, providing a set of fresh songs that make the listening experience more enjoyable.

Rather than alternating track-by-track between Rigsby and Bo Isaac on lead vocals, the album is sequenced to feature two or three cuts from each before switching back to the other. Isaac’s piercing tenor and Rigsby’s less-polished voice are individual, and this arrangement allows the featured singer’s style to become familiar to the listener over the course of a few songs. Swapping out on harmony, the singers’ voices work well together.

Having been employed by first-generation bluegrass legends including Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse, Lester Flatt, and Melvin Goins as well as The Whites, Dave Evans, Larry Cordle and others, it is no surprise that Summertown Road are exceptional musicians. Jack Hicks’ banjo presence is especially appreciated throughout the album. Rigsby is double-tracked on fiddle and mandolin, allowing the band a full-blown bluegrass sound.

The album has several notable moments. The album kicks off with “If I Win,” a fast-paced tune that not only introduces the band’s fiddle and banjo core, but the complementary vocals of Isaac and Rigsby. “Rosalee,” a Hicks tune co-written with Shayla Huffman, rekindles the timeless story of a man who can’t control his desires. Tom T. Hall’s “That’s Kentucky” sings the praises of the bluegrass state—“Daniel Boone and ole Abe Lincoln, not to mention Bill Monroe…” “Dennis Braden” features clawhammer from Rigsby and shares the tale of a common man. The album’s lone instrumental is a zippy number entitled “Goin’ Home to See My Baby.” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages” is a superior gospel performance.

While there is much to enjoy within the forty minutes that make up Summertown Road’s debut recording, there is little to distinguish it from the many albums that will be released in 2010. But it is a fine recording, one that gives hope that the group will create a niche within the bluegrass community.

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