If you broke faith with the Band of Ruhks boys, you may wish to investigate their new album and give them a second chance.
Bluegrass groups come and go. It is one of the accepted expectations of the business. Here’s another one: partnerships can always be rekindled.
Around thirty years ago, Kenny Smith, Don Rigsby, and Ronnie Bowman found themselves partnered as members of Lonesome River Band. They have come together—and drifted apart—within various projects over the course of decades, studios, labels, and concert stages, and several years ago formally came together first as The Rambling Rooks and now Band of Ruhks. Banjo player Brian Fesler was also a member of LRB, predating the trio.
Their debut album of a few years back had some strong performances. But I hadn’t been inspired to listen to it since its release, and I likely wouldn’t again if’n I wasn’t writing a review of their new album. Like lots of other bluegrass bands, Band of Ruhks’ instrumental abilities are silly strong, and their vocals—lead and harmony—on that self-titled album were nothing to scoff at.
Still, it was bland.
I will be held to task for that opinion, but I’ll own it. That album, released in 2015, did little to capture my attention. I bought the download, listened a few times waiting for something to grab onto, but found it too smooth. It started with “All The Way”—as boring a country song that has ever been associated with bluegrass—and continued on with “All We Need,” “Danny Boy,” and “Can’t Get Over You.” A few strong songs emerged, “Between the Devil and the Deep,” “Rendezvous With Danger,” and “Coal Mining Man” among them. But overall, a disappointing set of contrived rhythm and rhyme, as near to bluegrass/pop-country as I ever want to wander.
Why go on for almost 200-words on an album nearly five years old? Simple reason: as disillusioning as their self-titled album was, Authentic is its opposite.
The few weepy mid-tempo pieces included (“Where I Belong,” “Heartstrings”)—co-writes between Bowman, Billy Droze, and either Smith or Rigsby—are tolerable this time out, and the vast majority of the songs are bluegrass of the finest tradition.
Other songs from Bowman/Droze fare better. “Julie” (co-written with Rigsby) brilliantly slides into the genre with ease, as does their “My Ol’ Tattoo,” a song I can see being popular. From the same triumvirate is “Cold Heart of Steel,” a lonesome country song containing authentic ache in its vocal harmonies. “Run Fanny Run” is a classic Rigsby performance, singing of a mountain chase featuring revenuers and a particular bootlegger.
Smith (with Bowman and Droze) contributes the very appealing and bluesy, atmospheric “If You Wanna Know My Name” and the sprite instrumental “B N Me.” The Isaacs and Jason Crabb take the lead on the closing “Good Spirit Here,” as much an instrumental showcase (for folk like reso master Rob Ickes) as uplifting vocal showpiece. Fiddler Aubrey Haynie and bassist Ben Isaacs (who also produces Authentic) are featured throughout the album.
Authentic is a stellar album from a supergroup, a definite bluegrass bounce-back. Pretty sure the band won’t agree with my assessment of their earlier work, but Band of Ruhks really deliver on what they promised several years ago.