What is bluegrass?
It has gotta have that drive, whether coming from the big stand-up bass or the flat-top, rhythm guitar. Bluegrass has that wonderful sound of the mandolin, notes trilling and the chop, well, chopping. 5-string banjo needs to weave in and around that melody, the roll of notes lingering in aural memory long after they are played. Better have some fiddle slicing through, too. Give us some old songs, or songs that sound old, and a few new ones, too—harmonize around a lead vocalist singing about home and love, the past and places you’d rather be, trains, fathers, and sad times…before you know it—you got a bluegrass album.
Or, you could just put a Grasstowne CD on the stereo, and listen to the definition.
I remember Grasstowne from long ago. It’s hard to recall the players without a program, but if I recall correctly, Alan Bibey was having some success with Baucum, Bibey, and BlueRidge when he left to form Grasstowne alongside Phil Leadbetter and Steve Gulley, and over time Grasstowne became his band. He is definitely one of bluegrass music’s leading members—the IBMA’s most recent Mandolin Player of the Year, again—and his distinctive instrumental style and pleasing vocals have become as much of a centerpiece in a cohesive band as is allowed.
Hitchhiking to California is their sixth album, if I haven’t lost count on my fingers, and as the releases have been for a decade and a half, this one is consistently good. Sure there are a couple songs I find kinda sappy—“Daddy and Me,” for example—but I KNOW just as many folks love these kinds of songs. And one can’t fault the execution, with Darin & Brooke Aldridge harmonizing.
The stronger songs, in my mind “Lonesomeville,” “Rhythm of the Rails,” and the gospel vocal workout “When He Calls My Name” are mighty impressive, ones no bluegrass fan—not even an ornery one like me—can criticize. Most interestingly, and unusual for Bibey if I am not mistaken, is that the band reaches into the rock ‘n’ roll archives and take a run at Supertramp’s classic “Take the Long Way Home” and absolutely delivers. With a less orchestrated arrangement, there was a bluegrass song hiding within all the pomp and circumstance.
Last year the title cut (a reworking of a New Quicksilver song from a lifetime ago) made the bluegrass airplay charts, and it looks like “Blue Collar Blues” has followed suit. Both are fine songs and performances, if not terribly memorable. A version of The Bailes Brothers “I Want to Be Loved (But Only By You)” is really nice, and in disturbing fashion, Chris Stuart’s “Crime at Quiet Dell” impresses (as it did when recorded with BackCountry fifty pounds ago) as does a movin’ instrumental, “Messin’ with Sasquatch.”
With the always capable Bibey on lead vocals and mandolin, the current version of Grasstowne appears with long-serving Justin Jenkins (banjo,) Zak McLamb (bass, harmonies,) Tony Watt (guitar,) and Kati Penn (fiddle on the second half of the album, lead and harmony vocals.) Patrick M’Gonigle sings harmony on the first half of the album, while Ron Stewart—who co-produced the album with the band—contributes guitar and fiddle. A pretty impressive lineup, well utilized I would suggest.
And a good to really good album.