Sometimes writing about acoustic music is the simplest thing in the world: all I need is an album that enhances the traditions of the past thirty or fifty years while embracing a fresh, contemporary aural approach.
Perfect examples of this would be any Dale Ann Bradley recording, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys Rounder album of a few years ago, and High Fidelity’s Rebel releases.
And Merle Monroe’s album, Songs of a Simple Life.
A blend of bluegrass and country sounds, Merle Monroe—banjoist Daniel Grindstaff and vocalist/guitarist Tim Raybon—have, with their second album, perfected a distinctive approach to acoustic country music, one that includes plenty of bluegrass shadings.
The country side of things are covered not only through Raybon’s amiable vocal approach, but also in his song writing and their song selection. Numbers like “Shelby Tell Me,” “Harlan Darlin’,” and “Saginaw, Michigan” form the backbone of their sound, a crowd-pleasing blend of the country narratives and vocal and instrumental prowess.
By the time Raybon settles into Don Gibson’s “I’d Be A Legend in my Time,” the template is clear: like the Osborne brothers did in a previous time, Merle Monroe digs deep for the emotion, finds a deep banjo groove, and leaves critics to hang.
Raybon wrote seven of the included numbers, including chart-wise hits “Hello Sunshine,” “God’s Still In Control,” and “I’m Leaving Town Tonight.” The Hillmen’s “Roll On Muddy River” and the frequently cut (in the 70s) “Goodbye Marie” (Bobby Goldsboro/Kenny Rogers/Mel McDaniel/Johnny Rodriguez) may also prove popular.
I’ve been a fan of Daniel Grindstaff since first encountering him sometime in the early 2000s, and while I wish he was more frequently showcased on these songs, I understand the reasons why he isn’t; not a ‘hardcore’ bluegrass offering, there is plenty of banjo within the mix especially on “Goodbye Marie,” “Sing His Praises Forever,” “Roll On Muddy River,” and “I’m Leaving Town Tonight,” each of which contain obvious Osborne Brothers/Doyle Lawson influence. To these ears, “Harlan Darlin’,” “Hello Sunshine,” and “I’m Leaving Town Tonight” offer the greatest bluegrass satisfaction.
Instrumental contributions come from Merle Monroe’s Derek Deakins and Stephen Burwell (fiddle,) Andy Leftwich and Harry Clark (mandolin,) Kent Blanton (bass,) Trey Hensley and band member Kevin Richardson (guitar,) as well as Gaven Largent and Josh Swift (reso.) Steady (and Handsome) Harry Stinson (drums/percussion) also appears.
Merle Monroe’s Songs of a Simple Life is a satisfying blend of bluegrass and country, not as hardcore as some but fresh, genuine, and pleasing. Quickly, Merle Monroe has become Fervor Coulee favourites. Recommended.
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