Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
The Choosing Road
In my opinion, and that is what I’m getting paid the big bucks for, there has been no bluegrass band who has recorded more material while remaining more consistent over the last decade than Chris Jones & the Night Drivers.
Their albums are freakishly strong; I can’t think of a single throwaway track over the last several…well, I must admit I’m not a big fan of the “Wolf Creek Pass” song, but—since it topped the charts—I’m apparently in the minority.
Nope, they are a solid outfit. While others might stumble when one of the music’s finest modern banjo players depart, Jones simply slipped Gina Furtado into the quartet without dropping a beat.
Made to Move: Superior to most albums encountered.
Run Away Tonight: The band’s highwater mark.
Live at the Old Feed Store: Instrumental mastery.
Love Comes Easy: Deep and balanced.
Lost Souls and Free Spirits: A mighty satisfying compilation, plus.
Cloud of Dust: Uniformly of a high standard.
Go back even further, and no measurable drop-off is witnessed.
2019 brings us The Choosing Road, another terrific recording that presents a modern interpretation of bluegrass that ranks with the best of The Seldom Scene and The Country Gentlemen.
The Night Drivers are the complete package.
Instrumentally the combination of Jones (guitar), Furtado (5-string), Jon Weisberger (bass), and Mark Stoffel (mandolin) is as impressive as one could hope to encounter. Augmenting the road line-up are Tony Creasman (drums, most songs), fiddlers David Johnson, Megan Lunch Chowning, and Liz Carroll (a single track each), Tim Surrett (Dobro on the closing “Glimpse of the Kingdom,”) and Johnson on pedal steel on “Own the Blues.”
Jones’ guitar playing is always impeccable, and Furtado’s banjo playing and Stoffel’s mandolin shine. Weisberger does his job, providing the album its heartbeat. No one has to show-off within the structure of the Night Drivers: calm and confident is their calling card.
Vocally, Jones is indisputably one of bluegrass most distinctive and striking vocalists. His deliberate, low-nsome (I’m going to keep using it until it catches on!) singing never fails to impress. Whether singing at a fair clip (the opening “Your Remarkable Return,”) at a more modulated pace (“I Can’t Change the Rhyme,”) or reinvigorating a song that seemed beyond interpretation (Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again”) Jones not only nails but elevates his material. The group’s harmony vocals are arranged to suit individual songs, with Stoffel and Furtado complementing each and Weisberger creating a quartet on the closing sacred number.
The songwriting is, as expected, of significant quality. With the exception of the Winwood song and the pensive Stoffel/Furtado instrumental “Nyhan’s Regret” (and let’s review the font used on the liner notes, shall we Chris—that was close!), Jones writes or co-writes the album.
The chart-topping “Looking for the Bridge” and “Bend in the Road” (both Jones-Weisberger co-writes) are likely by now well-familiar to most bluegrass listeners, and they are strong compositions. These songs possess similar themes—the culmination of a journey, one figurative, the other literal—while evoking very different moods. “I’ll Watch Her Sail” is, like much of the material, again introspective. Even at his most forlorn, Jones’ voice contains a sliver of hope: everything happens for a reason.
We’ve all likely experienced the sentiment if not the experience of “I Shouldn’t Even Be Here,” while “Own the Blues” is a fine and rare country-grass song of lucid barroom decision-making. “Letters to Brendan,” a historical song from the perspective of an ill-fated young soldier, is particularly gripping, more so because the relationship to the recipient of his correspondence is deliberately opaque—brother, cousin, friend, or lover.
Furtado’s banjo leads into her co-write with Jones, “Who You Want Me To Be,” one of the album’s strongest songs. The magic of songwriting is making a genuine and personal-sounding song universal, and the mark is well-hit with this plaintive piece.
“Glimpse of the Kingdom,” another Jones-Weisberger composition, sounds a bit dark—minor keys will do that—but is actually quite uplifting and hopeful, if one is so inclined; it’s the type of bluegrass gospel song that appeals to the non-believer I happen to be.
The Choosing Road is more than the album’s title, it is the defining motif. Each song finds someone traversing a pathway, making a decision about their future or considering a life choice. One imagines the group was as deliberate as ever in their song choices, considering ones adhering to this theme, setting aside outliers. A bold choice, especially as it gives the album a uniformity that some may find off-putting.
I believe the decision brave and inspiring. The Choosing Road is quite possibly Chris Jones & the Night Drivers’ finest collection of songs. It holds up to multiple (and I mean multiple) listenings, revealing additional shades and textures as it becomes more familiar.
Now, if the IBMA voters would give the group their collective due.