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.