The name Gena Britt may not roll off the tongues of casual bluegrass fans as easily as say, Ron Stewart or Sammy Shelor, but her name – and her stand-out banjo playing – has been introduced to a much wider audience in recent years thanks to her work with Grasstowne and Sister Sadie. She’s recently released Chronicle, a solo effort on Pinecastle Records, with a strong mix of new songs by popular bluegrass and country songwriters and a supporting cast made up of a who’s who of pickers and singers.
Britt can often be found playing or filling in with bands that fall into the modern traditional spectrum, and the musicians and sound she’s put together here generally sit within that style. Lots of drive and tight instrumentation are found throughout the album, allowing the pickers to easily show off their skills. Album opener Over and Over, penned by Eli Johnston and Kevin McKinnon, captures that vibe perfectly. It’s a catchy number that uses several forms of transportation (trains, barges, etc.) as extended metaphors for a relationship on its last legs, with just a tinge of anger in Britt’s lead vocals and snazzy fiddle from her Sister Sadie bandmate, Deanie Richardson.
Trains also come up in Jim and Lynna Woolsey’s melancholy Runaway Train. Atmospheric banjo sets a moody background for Britt to ponder the ins and outs of leaving and never coming back. Tim O’Brien’s Untold Stories takes on the other side of leaving, finding a woman trying to work past lies and heartbreak and “wash away the troubles keeping us apart… let the healing start.” Britt’s banjo helps set an uptempo beat, and Josh Matheny’s resonator guitar adds a little extra spark.
Two Gospel songs come in at almost opposite ends of the spectrum. Get Up in Jesus’ Name is swingy and bluesy, with some extended instrumental breaks throughout. It features Alecia Nugent, and is among the best vocals on the album. Come to Jesus, on the other hand, lands closer to the Americana side of things (which is where it originated, with singer-songwriter Mindy Smith), with a darker, gritty feel.
Guest singers take the lead vocals on several songs. Marty Raybon sings Traveling Poor Boy from Brent Cobb, a well-written ode to rambling that’s an excellent fit for his warm, laid-back vocals. It’s a gentle, easy-going number that meanders along as the singer spills his thoughts to the man in the moon. Duane Sparks tackles Ships That Don’t Come In, a Joe Diffie hit from the early nineties. His voice might not be as recognizable as Raybon’s, but he has a distinctive style that has helped Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers earn quite a bit of airplay in the past few years, and it’s well-suited to this thoughtful, fiddle-guided piece. Digging a little further back in the vault is Brooke Aldridge, who belts a straightforward (vocally, at least) cut of On and On. Dustin Benson’s guitar and resonator guitar from Brandon Bostic update the song a bit more than Mr. Monroe might have, guiding it to the modern traditional sound.
The subtitle on the cover of Britt’s album is “Friends and Music,” and that’s exactly what can be found here. The choice to feature a wide variety of musicians and singers makes the album a bit less coherent than it might have been, but it’s still a strong compilation that highlights Britt, her bandmates, and her many fellow musicians through numerous enjoyable songs. Fans of her previous work – as well as those who enjoy modern traditional grass – should find something to like here.