How do keep a band sounding fresh after nearly 35 years as a bluegrass institution? Strong new material certainly helps, as does bringing in some youth from time to time.
That seems to be the formula Lonesome River Band is following, based on their strong new album, Bridging The Tradition, from Mountain Home Music.
Just think of how many classic songs have been introduced in bluegrass by this stellar group since they first hit the scene. And all the great players and singers who have rotated through during the intervening years. This latest release continues both traditions, which is acknowledged in the title as a reference to their breakout project from 1991, Carrying The Tradition. The band makes the allusion concrete in an inside sleeve photo that has fiddler Mike Hartgrove with a copy of the classic LP, and boss man Shelor holding a pair of drum sticks, signaling that percussion lies ahead.
Carrying The Tradition introduced the talents of future stars Ronnie Bowman and Sammy Shelor to LRB, just as Bridging The Tradition welcomes mandolinist and tenor vocalist Jesse Smathers. Things start this time out with Shelor’s banjo on Anything To Make Her Mine from Michael Bentley, featuring Smathers’ powerful and emotive singing, bringing immediately to mind the sound that Dan Tyminski brought to the band in the ’90s.
A sharp contrast is the next track, Rocking of the Cradle (Kim Williams, Doug Johnson), an acoustic country number with a rockin’ beat sung by guitarist Brandon Rickman. You can imagine hearing this one of country radio, which I’m sure was the reason for including it, along with Boats up The River, an old timer with a super bluesy feel done as a duet between Brandon and Jesse
But it’s right back to crackin’ bluegrass for Rock Bottom from the Ralph Stanley catalog, recorded in the ’70s by Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, and pushed to the edge by Sammy’s driving banjo and Jesse’s aggressive mandolin. This is the sound that rocketed LRB to the top of the bluegrass world 30 years ago.
Smathers also shines on Rose in Paradise, another acoustic country song from Waylon Jennings with a Hank Jr./Skynyrd vibe. Folks who saw big things for Jesse from his time with Nothin’ Fancy or James King will see that promise realized here, and on Old Swinging Bridge, a bluegrass favorite previously recorded by both Ted Lundy and James King.
Rickman shows his range and songwriting skills on Showing My Age and Mirrors Never Lie. Both get the acoustic country treatment, the first a ballad written with Jerry Salley about recognizing the signs of aging, and the second, co-written with Larry Cordle, works roughly the same theme in a bluesy heartbroke story.
Thunder & Lightning was the album’s debut single which again showcases Smathers who sings lead on the verses and jumps to tenor on the choruses. This song from Adam Wright is a prototypical LRB cut, a mid-tempo moonshining song with the band both pushing the front edge of the beat and holding it hard in time. You hear a similar sound on Runnin’ from the Blues where Tyminski comparisons suggest themselves again. Great stuff.
The album ends with a whimsical Real People, a swingy melody from Adam Wright about the sorts of lives regular folks live, and the real problems they face. It’s a nice digression from the drive, drive, drive… and a fine closer for this imaginative and thoroughly satisfying record.
Hartgrove contributes his usual, understated fiddle throughout, never up in your face but always right where it needs to be. Veteran bassist Barry Reed is likewise on time with every note, and Shelor’s banjo sparkles from start to finish.
If LRB can continue to recreate themselves like this as needed, one can imagine them rolling on for quite some time to come. Nicely done.