Jason Barie Pieces Billy Blue Records
We’ve had some pretty good bluegrass releases this year. Albums from Big Country Bluegrass, Dale Ann Bradley, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, The Grascals, and Larry Sparks rank with the best of their distinguished careers, while discs from Deanie Richardson, Gena Britt, Louisa Branscomb, and the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys provided pleasant surprise.
And now comes Jason Barie, perhaps best known as fiddler for Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.
As a rule, I don’t appreciate bluegrass fiddling albums. While I once thought the fiddle was the perfect instrument—welcome at bluegrass jams, Celtic pubs, country gatherings, and just about any bonfire in-between—I believe I have been ruined having heard too many competition-level fiddlers sharing their predictable reworkings of classic tunes. Well, that and I really can’t handle “Orange Blossom Special.”
But Jason Barie: he’s something else.
I got to see Barie perform a couple sets with the Radio Ramblers this summer, and witnessed he and his boss Mullins—armed only with a fiddle and banjo—hold a hall full of folks willingly captive. I wish I had taken notes so I could share some inspired insight, but I didn’t. Still, listening to him at Blueberry in August predisposed me favourable toward his new Pieces release. Playing the album secured my high opinion of the Florida native.
Apparently, Barie is held in similar esteem by his bluegrass colleagues. Folks appearing on this album by the self-described “Ramblin’ Fiddler” are a literal list of International Bluegrass Music Association nominees: Doyle Lawson, Becky Buller, Kristin Scott Benson, Corrina Rose Logston, Brandon Rickman, and about a dozen others including Radio Ramblers Mullins, Mike Terry, (former RR) Duane Sparks, and Randy Barnes. Not bad, right?
To Barie’s credit, the album doesn’t sound anything like every other fiddler’s solo release. Each song is fully developed, its arrangement comprehensive and multi-faceted, every mandolin chop and banjo chime as integral to the album’s mood and sound as the fiddlers’ trills.
The album kicks off with one of seven Barie instrumentals, the lively “Waiting on Isaac” and closes with the haunting “Ashokan Farewell,” the only cover instrumental included and one presumably borrowed from a Radio Ramblers’ concert set. In between? Thirty-five more minutes of bluegrass perfection.
“Sassafras” is a hoppin’ number, “The Rapido Kid” just plain fun, and “Two Left Shoes” is more graceful that it sounds. Barie definitely knows bluegrass fiddling, a master of his instrument, but he surprises those of us less familiar with his talents by also playing guitar on every track: how he managed the duel duty, only his producer knows. Dang, that’s Barie, too.
A treble dose of fiddling perfection is featured on “Sarah Jo,” with Buller and Logston joining Barie; not surprisingly, the number is energetic, but perhaps unexpectedly the tune doesn’t sound crowded with three fiddlers and banjo player Scott Benson sharing the foreground; mandolinist Wayne Benson also gets in a few licks while Barnes’ bass is nicely highlighted in the mix. A really, really good instrumental showcase, worthy of notice.
What else? Oh, what about the singers, you ask?
Apparently, Paul Williams and Del McCoury haven’t been captured singing together in a studio prior to this occasion. If you haven’t heard their take of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” you may want to change that right away. Williams sounds so credibly lonesome, one almost expects to hear a tear drop onto the mic. Expectedly, Mr. McCoury quite simply nails his parts. Nominating this one for IBMA Recorded Event of the Year, 2020 —if not Song of the Year—right now.
That performance sets the bar, and if the other vocal tracks don’t surpass it, that is just fine—tough to top pure perfection. Williams sings with Darrin Vincent on the gospel hymn “Beyond the Sunset For Me,” another ‘catching lightning’ moment, I believe. Rickman doesn’t get enough credit in my opinion, and his lead vocal take on “Blue Eyed Darlin’” is darned special. A bit of a treat is Eli Johnston and Michael Rogers sharing the mic on the Stanley chestnut “We’ll Be Sweethearts in Heaven.” Just as strong is Rogers and Corey Hensley’s traditional country treatment of “The Diary of My Mind.” And the harmony parts? Barie.
Jason Barie delivers an entirely satisfying bluegrass album. The singing and musicianship are spot-on perfect, a blending of traditional and contemporary that is most appealing. The accompanying CD booklet is both artistically satisfying (courtesy of Barie’s brother Eric) and informative, detailing the backstory and origin of our Ramblin’ Fiddler.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken a moment at Blueberry to introduce myself to this mysterious masked fiddler. I’m pretty sure he has a keen story to tell.
Until next we meet, Pieces will speak for itself—one of 2019’s finest roots music recordings.
And a legend was born…