There are a lot of great bluegrass bands working today, and I would put Sister Sadie up against any single one of them.
There remains novelty being an all-female bluegrass group. We should be beyond it, but as an industry we aren’t near there yet. We are not yet past the point where festival bookers tell prospective acts, “Sorry, we already have our girl act for the weekend.”
Sister Sadie may well be on a mission to slap the hell out of that worn, blinkered attitude. When skills are to the level of distinction found within this quintet, gender should not and cannot be a factor of limitations. Sister Sadie’s debut album was among the finest to be released in 2016, and II is stronger—even more unified, the group has melded into a seamless force greater than its exceedingly impressive parts. There is sufficient polish provided to the recordings, produced by the band and engineered, mixed, and mastered by Scott Vestal, but not so much shine is applied that the music sounds artificial or over-produced. The quartet’s natural essence is given prominence, a traditional vision bolstered by contemporary approaches.
With Dale Ann Bradley (guitar) and Tina Adair (mandolin and guitar) leading the way, and Gena Britt (banjo) singing a couple, Sister Sadie has a lead and harmony vocal presence no bluegrass combo can match.
Tina Adair sings lead on four numbers. The album’s lead track is the no-nonsense and soulful “Losing You Blues,” written by Adair and Doug Bartlett. Throughout the album, Adair proves that she hasn’t finished defining herself as a bluegrass singer and songwriter; her “Jay Hugh” is an old-time bluegrass character study of multi-dimensional complexity. The sorrow conveyed in Woody Guthrie’s “900 Miles” is palatable, honest and profound, and neither Linda Ronstadt or Bonnie Raitt sang “Love Has No Pride” with greater intensity than does Adair.
Listening to Dale Ann Bradley sing is always a treat, and she clears her very high bar of performance on this recording. Her temperate approach is ideally suited to these songs including the formidable “I’m Not a Candle in the Wind” and “No Smoky Mountains,” while the group picks things up for Dan Fogelberg’s “Morning Sky.” Bradley’s interpretation of newly inducted Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Tom T. Hall’s “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew” is as fine as any recorded within the genre, with Deanie Richardson’s mournful fiddle adding atmosphere. Bradley’s guitar playing on this country classic is also impressive.
Richardson also takes a prominent position within “When I Lay My Burden Down,” with Bradley’s inspired lead voice complemented by Britt and Adair’s harmony.
Gena Britt doesn’t possess the vocal heft of Bradley and Adair, and her considerable charm emanates from the lightness of her approach. “It’s You Again” is a fairly grave song of longing and distance, but Sister Sadie’s rendition—sung by Britt—has a gentle hopefulness that Skip Ewing’s lacked. “Something to Lose” has a Bradley-like feel, and Britt delivers this sermon to maturity with worldly awareness. Her “Raleigh’s Ride” is well-named, a jaunty traverse through traditional sounds. Beth Lawrence’s steady bass rhythm, here and throughout the album, provide Sister Sadie their rock-solid foundation.
Sister Sadie is no novelty or off-season ‘super-group.’ They are a bona fide bluegrass force, more than capable as festival headliners. That they have now released a second album of soon-to-be classic performances is testimony to their ascension within the ever-expanding bluegrass field. Hopefully II forever retires the phrase, “pretty good for a girl.”