Several years ago, a sibling band based out of Florida took the bluegrass world by storm when they won the 2012 SPGBMA Band Competition and set off on a powerful career that recently earned them a number of IBMA Awards, including Song of the Year and Album of the Year. Unless you’ve been living under a rock with your Bill Monroe box set, you probably know that this group is Flatt Lonesome.
Could a similar path to success be in the stars for the Bluegrass Outlaws, this year’s SPBGMA Band Competition winners? The group, fronted by husband and wife team Becky Webb Monk and Chris Monk, jumped head first into the bluegrass world after taking home first place during what was essentially their first public performance as a band. They recently released their debut, self-titled album, a twelve-track collection that favors the popular, mash-grass style.
The record is a solid mixture of original material and a few bluegrass favorites, often rendered in a straight-ahead, in-your-face style that fans of the modern traditional sound should enjoy. Chris’s banjo gets things started on No Regrets, a “take this job and shove it” tale sung forcefully by Becky. As she sings lines like “I’ve leavin’ here with no regrets, I’ve put in all my time. I’ve paid my dues, I’m out of here, no worries on my mind,” she sounds like she means it – she’s got better things to do, so she’s moving on. She wrote both this song and several others on the album, including Raging Storms, a similarly powerful number about a treacherous flood.
The lead single, Upper Big Branch Mine, was penned by Becky and Chris along with Becky’s brother Darrell Webb. It’s a dark number based on a 2010 mine disaster in West Virginia in which an explosion killed twenty-nine miners. The well-written song is a highlight of the album, and will likely touch home with many bluegrass fans, especially those in the Appalachian region. Special mention should go to Chris, whose banjo sets a tragic, haunting mood from the first notes. He also gets to show off his picking on his original instrumental, Timbercove, which allows all the band members to display some fiery, aggressive instrumentation.
Mandolin player Evan Maynard also contributed a pair of originals to the album, both of which are standout tracks. The mid-tempo Another Rainy Monday captures a life where “the forecast stays the same, broken hearts and pouring rain.” It’s a nicely-written portrait of a man who tries to escape his sadness on the weekends with “another dark haired girl who wants to hear another song,” but always ends up facing his loneliness when Monday rolls around. Ring on the Table is a strong number with a classic bluegrass theme – a no-good cheating woman, a husband with a gun… you get the picture. Maynard has a warm, smooth, country-style voice that works well with Becky’s commanding high lonesome vocals when the two harmonize.
The band dips into the classic bluegrass catalog for two tracks in the middle of the album. They give Down the Road a groove-filled, forceful vibe with some nice fiddle work from Cody Bauer. Bauer also gets to shine on Tennessee Blues, which lets the band try their hand at a slightly different sound – still traditional-leaning, but more delicate than the other material here. It’s an enjoyable version, reminiscent of Josh Williams’s cut of the song.
The Bluegrass Outlaws also offer up two Gospel songs, both written by Becky. God’s Watching Over You has a gentle, acoustic country sound and uses the words of a wise old man to remind both the singer and listeners that God is always there for us. Straight & Narrow Way, on the other hand, is a peppy toe-tapper and a fine example of traditional bluegrass Gospel. Clocking in at just over two minutes, it closes the album on an upbeat note.
The Bluegrass Outlaws is filled with skilled pickers who embrace energetic performances. Chris has a fine, driving style, while Becky keeps a strong, consistent rhythm on bass. Maynard, Bauer, and guitarist Wesley Wolfe prove that they can handle both fast traditional grass and more melodic, country-influenced songs with ease. Their debut is strong, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.
Though the album has been available for a little over a month, the Bluegrass Outlaws will celebrate with an official release party at the Down Home, a traditional music venue in Johnson City, TN, this Saturday, October 29. For more information about the band and their new album, visit www.bluegrassoutlaws.com.