It is ridiculous that we expect groups and artists to constantly out-do themselves from one album to the next. Once a pinnacle is reached, perhaps we should be pleased when a group simply maintains their standards.
Therefore, I’m not going to suggest Made to Move is better than Chris Jones & the Night Drivers’ previous recording, the hit-laden collection Run Away Tonight. Indeed, it may not be. No, that future classic was a mighty high bar, but if Made to Move doesn’t exceed it, it certainly matches that recording as a set of original bluegrass that is superior to the majority encountered.
The album kicks off with a healthy Chuck Berry vibe (“All the Ways I’m Gone,”) that complements Jones’ confident low-nsome vocal canter. Before the song is out, we’ve heard memorable, stellar picking from not only Jones, but mandolinist Mark Stoffel and co-producer Dobroist Tim Surrett.
And things just continue to get better with each passing song.
Newest Night Driver Gina Glowes’ vocal harmony contributions are noticed and appreciated, giving a new depth to the group’s well-established sound. Her 5-string chops are obvious throughout, but especially on more reflective pieces such as the already chart-topping “I’m A Wanderer” and “Living Without.” “Last Frost” is the album’s banjo instrumental, and it is a fully-developed musical landscape that the imaginative can read like a story. On this tune, bassist Jon Weisberger’s tone is notable.
Weisberger, who co-wrote half the songs on the album, is a formidable bass presence. He doesn’t impede with his presence, of course, but no one in bluegrass seems to be able to do exactly what he does—perhaps it is just a testament to the way the group records, but his bass rhythms are never experienced as an apparent afterthought.
With his bold, baritone voice, Jones is easy to listen to and his mild-mannered approach to a song allows him to connect with listeners in a way some vocalists never master. A story song such as “The Old Bell” pulls one into its history within seconds, while the ‘coming home’ “Range Road 53” appeals in a similar manner if with increased tempo. “Silent Goodbye” may remind listeners of a previous Jones-Weisberger co-write, “Final Farewell.”
Stoffel is known as a tasteful accompanist, and his contributions to songs including “Rainbows Fell” will have some listeners leaning in toward the speakers. His mando-laden “What the Heck?!” closes the set, and is a fitting way to wrap-up the album, one that is as fresh and sparkling as its coda.
Clowes’ approach to “Dark Hollow” is readily apparent and perhaps even innovative, but it is Stoffel’s notes that I gravitate toward. The Night Drivers present an interesting arrangement of the old warhorse, one that obviously sparked the band’s interest as they worked it up together. By modulating the tempo mid-song, the Night Drivers encourages one to re-engage with the oft-heard standard.
Finally, I know Jones has recorded albums without a Tom T. Hall song, but not often. Made to Move‘s offering is a gentle interpretation of the Johnny Rodriguez co-write “You Always Come Back (To Hurting Me,)” a #1 from 1973.
Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are undoubtedly one of bluegrass music’s strongest instrumental bands. Each of the musicians is a master of their craft, and together they produce a style of bluegrass that is most likely unique. With Jones as their lead singer, they are blessed with one of the strongest, most recognizable vocal stylists the music offers. Will 2017 finally be the year that the band are recognized by the International Bluegrass Music Association when it comes time to complete ballots? One hopes so, because they truly have earned it.
Made to Move is another top-notch album from Chris Jones & the Night Drivers.
In preparation of writing the review, I went back to the shelves and was surprised to find that I had only three of their previous albums, the debut Fork in the Road and its follow-up The Infamous Stringdusters as well as both the download of Silver Sky and the deluxe edition which came with the live album We’ll Do It Live.
I must have misplaced their third album somewhere, because when I purchased the download earlier this month, it sounded immediately familiar. I share this because I think sometimes folks feel that writers, even we of the freelance variety, get all their music free. I certainly don’t. [I was serviced with Laws of Gravity; that is why I wrote about it.]
In order to write this review, I purchased downloads of Things That Fly, Let It Go, Undercover, and Ladies & Gentlemen. I did that to ensure that my perspective on Laws of Gravity was fully informed. I will never, ever make back that $3o from my review of Laws of Gravity (once upon a time…O, how I sometimes long for 2005!), but in order to write about a band I need to understand their music.
Apparently, I stopped intently listening to The Infamous Stringdusters some time ago, and I am now- having listened to their albums for the past three weeks- regretful of that: won’t happen again. I am listening to their set from last year’s DelFest as I type these words, and I am reminded of how impressed I was the first time I heard them live- maybe on WDVX- and how incredible their concert in Red Deer was almost a decade ago. They are a great band- not necessarily ‘bluegrass’ as I understand it, but a damned fine group of musicians and singers. Check out my review over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, and feel free to let me know what you think.
I am really missing the IBMA live stream: all the asides and quips, and especially the various “thanks” that are offered—you can learn a lot about a person by the way they accept an award. The ‘in memory’ segment is something for which I have great respect. Also, I regret not being able to hear the Rounder folks receive their Hall of Fame honours; I am certain Ken Irwin had fine words. Finally, the live performances are almost always memorable.
I can’t imagine why there is no live stream this year beyond a lack of sponsorship, which is too bad. I wonder why the IBMA can’t just ‘do it’ on their own…even if only on Periscope!
Mountain Faith, a band that made their name on a reality series, was just awarded Emerging Artist of the Year. Sigh. The less I say…
Song of the Year just went to a song originally released in 1990. I called it. I wouldn’t have voted for it. “You’re the One,” by Flatt Lonesome, giving them two awards tonight, and I predict they will get the hat trick later on. I believe it is the weakest performance on their (quite enjoyable) album; what the hell do I know?!
Again, the less I say…
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen were awarded Instrumental Group of the Year…my prediction percentage is falling—barely over 50% now. I heard The Earls of Leicester and Dirty Kitchen side-by-side this summer. No offense…to these ears and when it comes to ‘bluegrass,’ it ain’t close.
That is after self-revision/editing.
Penny Parsons, author of Foggy Mountain Troubadour, was named Bluegrass Media Person of the Year. I had placed her bio of Curly Seckler on my ‘to buy’ list, but then forgot about it…need to correct that.
It is hard for the bluegrass industry to receive true, critical coverage when folks are eligible (vying?) for recognition from the professional industry. No? Looking at the list of very fine past winners, perhaps Bluegrass Media Promoter of the Year would be a better name for the award.
Other Special Awards presented earlier went to the IBMA’s new chairperson, Joe Mullins, as Broadcaster of the Year, and his son Daniel for Best Liner notes for a Traditional Grass compilation…a band featuring Joe Mullins. Yes, the industry is a bit incestuous…
Flatt Lonesome won Album of the Year, an album much, much stronger than their previous and one I positively reviewed. Still, Runaway Train wouldn’t have been in my top 25 bluegrass albums of the year, and where I predicted the ‘hat trick’ above, I thought they would get Entertainer of the Year. The SteelDrivers got themselves robbed.
The evening’s final award—Entertainer of the Year—rightfully goes to The Earls of Leicester! As it should be. (I predicted Flatt Lonesome, but hoped for the Earls.) I believe that puts me below 50% for the night on the predications, probably better than I have ever done before…not exactly pleased about that, but glad about many of them.
I wonder what I missed? Hopefully next year the video live stream is back…or at least someone in the audience decides to Periscope the event.
Most years I live blog about the awards as they occur, but this year I am having to rely on Twitter, and specifically @StacyChandler for information as they are not streaming the awards this year. I am sure there is a reason for this, a good one, but it is disappointing.
Therefore, I will only post a couple times tonight and leave the instantaneous reactions to those present.
The first award of the evening goes to The Special Consensus for Instrumental Performance of the Year, “Fireball.” I’m one-for-one…it won’t last.
I am not surprised that Recorded Event of the Year was awarded to “Longneck Blues” from the popular Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman despite my belief that it isn’t a terribly strong song. No longer batting 1.000.
Banjo player of the year: Charlie Cushman of The Earls of Leicester. I didn’t call this one because I (for some reason) felt the noodlers would have their way, but I couldn’t be happier. Cushman knows how to play bluegrass. Beautiful.
Dobro player of the year: Jerry Douglas, the true Earl of Leicester, for the tenth time and second year in a row. Called that one. I also believe it will be cold this winter.
Bass player of the year: Barry Bales, making the E of L three-for-three. My mistake in not going with BB: with Rob McCoury ‘finally’ winning as Banjo player of the year last year, I thought maybe this time the organization would get behind the Del McCoury Band/Travellin’ McCoury’s other member that has never been crowned by the IBMA, Alan Bartrum. I was wrong.
Getting all the instrumental awards out of the way, apparently. Next, Mandolin player of the year, and a first time winner- Sierra Hull. I hedged on this one, backing both Adam Steffey and Sierra Hull: not my kind of music—barely in the big tent last time I listened—but not surprised that the powerbrokers of the industry went with her.
Fiddle player of the year: Wow! I got another one—Becky Buller.
Guitar player of the year is Bryan Sutton, for the tenth time—well deserved. He is one heck of a player, and released an excellent album. And, I called it. Let’s see…that makes me four-and-a-half for eight, which is spooky.
Now, onto the vocalists…I’m surprised that Becky Buller has just been named Female Vocalist of the Year. She didn’t release a new album, but I guess her increased presence in the industry has been rewarded. Deserving. Not as deserving as Dale Ann Bradley, but…
Gospel recorded performance of the year, “All Dressed Up” by Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, a song I thought was pretty good initially, but which in retrospect is too ‘by the books’ for my tastes. Still, a fine performance, I just happened to enjoy what Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands did more. My prediction that she wouldn’t win was correct, so I’m counting this one!
Male vocalist of the year, Danny Paisley. Some would say, “About time!” I’m one of them as I predicted this one. Again, I would have voted differently, but—again—deserving.
I called another one, which is frightening…Flatt Lonesome is Vocal group of the year. Again, not to my taste, but I take some satisfaction in at least being able to predict the direction the wind is blowing…even from a distance.
Sam Bush, it can be argued, is the most significant mandolin player of the last fifty years. From his groundbreaking work with the New Grass Revival and his expansive slate of collaborations in bluegrass, country, folk, and beyond, to his extensive catalogue of innovative solo album excellence and acceptance as the crown prince of Telluride, Bowling Green, Kentucky’s favoured son has long been the bellwether of all things acoustic and ‘grassy.
Storyman comes almost seven years after the exceptional Circles Around Me, an album that signified a high-point in Bush’s considerable solo output. As strong as that album was (it made my Top Ten for 2009 and, in hindsight and perusing that list while listening again this morning, it would now be certain of a Top 5 berth) Storyman is an even more complete encapsulation of Bush’s approach to acoustic, bluegrass shaded Americana.
[FYI- the following paragraph was sketched before I read the one-sheet. Just want that out there!]
When listening to Bush’s music over the course of twenty-plus years, no word has come to mind more frequently than ‘joy,’ and that continues throughout this amazing album. Opening with a double-shot of affirmation (“Play By Your Own Rules” and the island-flavoured “Everything is Possible,”) Storyman is an album that challenges the listener to stare down mortality and embrace the pure positive vibes that surround us. Co-written with Jon Randall Stewart, “I Just Wanna Feel Something” closes the album and while ostensibly about the community of jamming, the song’s message goes well beyond the circle.
A pair of instrumentals is featured. “Greenbrier” is a fully-charged demonstration of the dexterity of the Sam Bush Band including Todd Parks (bass,) Stephen Mougin (guitar,) Scott Vestal (banjo,) and Chris Brown (drums.) With an extended mid-song jam that takes the tempo down for a few, the communication between band members is on display. Equally atmospheric but less energetic is “Not What You Think,” a band composition that plays like a newgrass concerto.
Not everything is completely upbeat and joyous, but Bush shades everything from the optimist’s perspective. Even the album’s most heavy song, a co-write with Guy Clark entitled “Carcinoma Blues,” flips the darkness with the sharpness of the barb: “Cancer, you ain’t rulin’ me.” Bravely, Bush decided that this song needed to be included on Storyman, recognizing that some may feel its inclusion is ‘too soon.’ “Lefty’s Song” dates back to the late 70s and was recently rediscovered by Bush on a cassette; telling the tale of a small town scribe and the delayed gratification that came with a life of obligation, Lefty is able to spend his final years with his long-ago “lost velvet girl.”
Given the album title, it is no surprise Bush emphasizes the story aspect of song to a greater degree than apparent on Circles Around Me, an album that features the magnificent “Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle” and a selection of older material that relay familiar tales. A personal journey of courtship (“Transcendental Meditation Blues,”) a familial tribute (“Bowling Green,”) and a tasteful diatribe against modern (the last thirty years) approaches to country music (“Handmics Killed Country Music”) are among the songs that bind the album into a cohesive document of story and experience.
I’ve never not enjoyed a Sam Bush album. Glamor & Grits and Howling at the Moon bring delight after many years, and I return to Laps in Seven at least annually. Storyman adds a rich chapter to the Sam Bush story. A great start to the musical summer of 2016.