Dale Ann Bradley The Hard Way Pinecastle Records
The Hard Way is stronger than Dale Ann Bradley’s previous self-titled release, which was itself a stout collection of bluegrass.
Bradley’s style has evolved over these last twenty-plus years. Over the course of ten solo albums, most edges have been smoothed from Bradley’s presentation. In their place is a polished and time-hewn version of bluegrass. She has grown into a bluegrass master, all self-doubt set aside and well-buried.
She is the voice of the music’s softer side, no country posturing or pop-blurring. Bradley remains ‘mountain as rock,’ natural and unpretentious, but her confidence and self-determination allow the East Kentucky native do pursue her art undeterred by genre convention or others’ constraints.
As have her last few albums, there are a dozen or more musicians and singers involved in the creation of The Hard Way. Some bluegrass albums with so many parts end up sterile and passionless. No such worries here. Self-producing again, Bradley definitely knows what she is going for with her recordings, and The Hard Way is no exception.
This execution of vision is flawless. I don’t hear her name mentioned when standout producers are named, but she should be in the conversation. She’s been producing select albums for a long time (Cumberland River Dreams, 2001 was her first time in the co-producer’s seat, although the New Coon Creek Girls—of which Bradley was a member—self-produced their The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore release in 1994) and has been doing it very well.
It is impossible to find a Bradley album that doesn’t include a 70s or 80s rock and roll or pop song improved as a bluegrass tune. From “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (East Kentucky Morning, 1997) and “Stuck in the Middle” (Old Southern Porches, 1999) through to “’Til I Hear It From You” (Pocket Full of Keys, 2015) and “Champaign Lady” (Dale Ann Bradley, 2017) each album has reveal a gem (or two) amongst a selection of self- and co-written material and recent songs from other songwriters.
For The Hard Way, Bradley goes to extreme, covering four familiar, non-bluegrass songs; she reaches back furthest to Bobbie Gentry’s enduring “Ode to Billie Joe,” while also taking Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” and The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” to the woodshed. The title track is the last song off the final Jim Croce album. Each of the performances are memorable, and as she always has—including with “Me and Bobby McGee” (Come Tomorrow, 2006) and “Over My Head” (Don’t Turn Your Back, 2009)—Bradley brings personal touches to the songs, making them entirely her own.
Like the rest of us, Bradley knows that the perfect version of “Ode to Billie Joe” was recorded in 1967, and to her great credit she subtly manipulates the song without insolence. She alters the instrumental tone of “Ode to Billie Joe,” even allowing a hint of a natural giggle into her voice when singing the remembrance of the indifferent brother. She forgoes banjo on “Ripple,” allowing the song to travel a more pastoral path.
Dale Ann is ‘bout the only way I’m going to enjoy a Journey song, while the Croce composition is given a dramatic performance. Bradley’s self-determined and independent streak are highlighted in this song; with her considerable experience, she is able to find the perfect approach to this powerful song of reflection and affirmation.
There is a solitary original, but it is a splendid one. “Pretty, Dark-Hearted Emma Brown“ is a prototypical bluegrass anti-hero, the philandering gal breaking a heart via her “evil deeds.” Michael Cleveland’s fiddle playing haunts this especially well-composed tune of riverside homicide.
The Hard Way doesn’t falter. Bradley covers “(Me and) The Redbird River,” a Carla Gover song, and while Zoe Speaks’ rendition is darned good, Bradley elevates an already impressive song. “Boat on the Ocean” an Aaron Bibelhauser/Milan Miller song, is buoyed by strong images and a catchy refrain (“I can see your silhouette on the horizon—are you heading home or sailing far away?”) I can’t locate a songwriting credit for the road song “One Good Wiper Blade,” but it captures the moment of letting go quite astutely. Still, why someone leaving Tacoma for California—“heading north to sunshine”—confuses my literal brain.
Dale Ann Bradley seems incapable of creating a less-than-magical album. As far as I’m concerned, no one in the industry matches her for consistency of song selection and performance. This week I’ve listened to her nine previous albums, as well as a couple New Coon Creek Girls’ discs. Over the last fifteen years, her voice has simply become stronger. Still, she sounds as fresh as when first encountered. The Hard Way may be light a song as another original would have been appreciated.
Dale Ann Bradley is a master bluegrass singer, producer, and songwriter. That she hasn’t been named IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year since 2012 is inexplicable. The Hard Way should earn her a few more votes. It is a complete recording, and a dynamic one.