“Songs of Heart and Home” by Greg Blake is a stunning achievement. By pulling in music from a variety of sources, both traditional and contemporary Blake has crafted an album that has all the power of traditional bluegrass, sounding completely familiar without becoming cliché. The supporting cast is, of course, a big part of the record. Mark Schatz’s bass slapping that drives “Hey Porter” has the groove and power of the freight train they’re singing about on the tune. Greg Blake sounds completely comfortable singing these songs and one assumes he’s sung them for a long time. While that kind of familiarity might make things sound stale, the excitement and energy of the artists combined here brings out the spark of discovery and newness even on a oft-recorded standard like “I Still Miss Someone”. On a project like this one, produced by Sally Van Meter, you expect everything to sound just right, every instrument and vocal just where it belongs and that’s just what you hear, smooth like summer wind with the kick of moonshine, sounding perfectly planned and still spontaneous.
The Steep Canyon Rangers have a new album out called “Radio” and from the first tune it’s clear that this is new bluegrass. The title track kicks off the disc with references to Casey Kasem on the radio as well as rock bands like The Kinks, not a one room cabin, mountain holler or grave on a hillside in sight. I tend to side with the opinion that there are two kinds of music; good and bad. Of course it’s all opinion as to what constitutes those categories. I refer to use genre names or classifications to explain the overall sound for someone who hasn’t heard the album rather than to confer some status on the record. This is an album that will have many reviewers in bluegrass publications asking “Is it bluegrass” or adding qualifiers such as “Not really bluegrass”.
The opening track is as catchy a song as you’re likely to hear with a rockin’ back beat drum and bass groove that fits the pop radio memories described in the lyrics. A lot of the tracks feature a funky blues groove taking advantage of their instrumental line up. The drums, mandolin, fiddle and banjo all adding that bluegrass chop gives the music a furious rhythm potential. Sometimes it’s a bouncy groove on a song like “Simple is Me” and sometimes it’s more of a freight train on a song like “Blow Me Away” which also jumps into gypsy jazz swing. To my ears this is modern bluegrass music in the same way that Sgt. Peppers was modern rock and roll. Listen to 1967 Beatles and you can hear the influences of Chuck Berry and Little Richard and those influenced have been informed and expanded by the wider world of music that the composers were exposed to. It is my opinion that any musical genre that survives will diversify. Listening to “Radio” I hear musicians playing bluegrass instruments informed and inspired by Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and other first generation pioneers and this inspiration is energized by equal parts input from Motown, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock. This is music for open-minded listeners for sure. If, on the other hand, you prefer only one style of music played on mandolins, banjos, guitars etc. I’d suggest checking out the instrumental “Looking Glass” which is perhaps the closest thing to a traditional bluegrass groove (although there are some tempo shifts) featuring one of the most supple and sensuous melodies you’ll hear anywhere.
I think it’s fair to say we’re in the midst of a bluegrass renaissance and it will not all sound or look the same, but the quantity of quality available should be cause for celebration.