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(Skaggs Family Records 6989020172 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/14/2006)
Ever since the 1980s, bluegrass music has been getting increasingly eclectic. David Grisman and his group helped to define the style, taking the instrumentation of bluegrass and borrowing from genres ranging from jazz to rock to ethnic music. It came to be called New Acoustic Music, and the scene remains active, though there seem to be fewer all instrumental releases than there were back then. Bluegrass music had tended to be very traditional, and the audience was at first deeply split about the eclecticism of the New Acoustic scene, but by now, such messing with the traditions is more or less accepted on most of the folk and bluegrass festival circuits. There are, of course, the long-time traditionalists like Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury, but even Del McCoury has had success performing songs by British folk-rocker Richard Thompson. More recently, there has been yet another new generation of bluegrass players who are further expanding the genre into singer-songwriter territory, such as Alison Krauss and the band Nickel Creek. And long-time country music performers have been returning to their bluegrass roots, most notably Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton.
This week, we have a fine debut recording by a band called Cadillac Sky. Their new CD is called Blind Man Walking. The group has an impressive pedigree. The members span a couple of decades in age and include a veteran Nashville songwriter, a pair of bluegrass champion instrumentalists, including one who won the banjo competition at the Winfield folk festival at age 17. So the group combines strong songwriting with impressive instrumental prowess, and a stylistic eclecticism that has them including Celtic influence, an Australian digeridoo, as well as going off into complex, jazzy shifts of meter that are reminiscent of Grisman's style. It's an impressive album that should have wide appeal.
Cadillac Sky's members are songwriter, lead vocalist and mandolin player Bryan Simpson, whose resume includes songs composed for George Strait, Martina McBride and Gretchen Wilson. His time in Nashville is reflected to some extent in his vocal style, which has a bit of the Nashville twang, rather than the "high-lonesome" sound of traditional bluegrass tenors. Simpson wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album's songs. On the banjo is Matt Menefee, the teenage championship picker. On guitar and some vocals is Mike Jump. Ross Holmes plays the fiddle, and on bass, including some bowed bass, which is rather rare for bluegrass, is Andy Moritz. There are a few guests, including some backing vocalists, but the Cadillac Sky is pretty much self-contained on the CD.
Blind Man Walking is quite generous for a bluegrass release. Most recordings in the genre tend to have a lot of short songs and clock in at under 40 minutes, but this one features 15 songs, several running longer than five minutes, and totals about 53 minutes. Several of the tracks do have a chance for the band to stretch out for instrumental breaks.
Leading off is a piece called Born Lonesome. The song shows Simpson's Nashville credentials, while the picking is first rate. <<>>
One of the most traditional-sounding bluegrass songs on Blind Man Walking is one about a topic not often explored in the bluegrass world, insomnia. Insomniac Blues has some of the kind of impressive picking that is very unlikely to cure anyone's insomnia. <<>>
A song called You Again is kind of moral melodrama about an ex-con who is tempted and succumbs to returning to his life of crime. Musically it's also quite interesting with more fine picking by the band. <<>>
The digeridoo, as played by one of the CD's guest musicians, Kenneth Soper, makes its appearance on the somewhat spacey introduction to the title track Blind Man Walking. <<>> Before the band breaks into main section of song which is a kind of contemporary Gospel piece. <<>>
Also with a religious theme is Sinners Welcome, with some impressive mostly a cappella singing. <<>> Toward the end of the piece, Cadillac Sky does something rather rare, they combine African-American Gospel with the white Southern Gospel that is usually forms the basis of the bluegrass Gospel songs. <<>>
For me one of the most impressive tracks on the CD is its one instrumental, Neighborhood Bully's Long Look in the Mirror. It has all the fancy picking and musical complexity of the best of the New Acoustic scene. <<>>
Lyrically, probably the most interesting and engaging song is Can't Trust the Weatherman, which is a kind of Bonnie and Clyde story about a couple's crime spree and how their fate was tied to bad weather forecasts. <<>>
The one song not written by Simpson is Mountain Man, composed and sung by guitarist Mike Jump. It's another story song that is nicely done by the band. <<>>
Blind Man Walking the new debut album by the bluegrass band Cadillac Sky is an excellent example of the current state of progressive bluegrass. It's a quartet that combines championship level picking with strength in songwriting. Principal composer Bryan Simpson created a worthy collection of songs, some of which could easily become country hits if served up in a more commercial musical setting. The country-style of many of the vocals are not my favorite part of the recording, but the performances are outstanding, and the musical arrangements show imagination.
For a sound quality grade, we'll give this CD an "A-minus." The clarity and sound of the acoustic instruments is commendable, but recording was given too much compression in an effort to make it sound loud. The dynamics of the acoustic instrumentation suffers as a result. Of course this is all too common a malady, but it still does a disservice to the music.
It's a ritual for artists to put lists of people they thank in the liner notes. Cadillac Sky also has a list of "no thanks," including "apathetic sound men" and "high gas prices." They also list among their No Thank Yous the "small minded." One can guess from that they still get heckled by some of the died-in-the-wool bluegrass traditionalists. This is definitely not an old-time bluegrass album, but for the fan of eclectic acoustic music, this is an impressive recording that to me underscores the vitality of bluegrass and its bright future.
(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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