If you’re looking for a fine example of the hard-driving modern traditional style of bluegrass that has been popular over the past decade or so, look no further than eastern Kentucky’s Turning Ground. On their new album from Pinecastle Records, Crazy House, they hit you with in-your-face banjo and bass from the first few notes, and don’t let up until the album’s over. Pair that sound with the strong, emotional lead vocals of Nathan Arnett, and the overall result here is straight-ahead mash that fans of Volume Five, The Boxcars, and other similar groups should certainly enjoy.
Also like those bands, Turning Ground offers plenty of original music that leans toward the dark and desperate. The album starts off with several crime-themed songs in a row, all penned by Arnett. Outlaw is a rousing number narrated by “the most wanted outlaw next to Jesse James,” a man quite proud of himself and his efforts to elude a determined lawman. Josh Hensley’s banjo drives the song, mimicking the urgency in Arnett’s vocals. Next up is Loving Wife, which features a familiar tale in bluegrass music – the ever-popular “cheating wife and her lover get what they deserve” story. The song’s arrangement works well, using stops to emphasize the moment the narrator “cocked that hammer, pulled that trigger,” for one example.
Prison Life is a fairly straight-forward number in the vein of Moundsville Pen, which finds the singer lamenting the state of spending the rest of his life locked away. Jason Hale offers some excellent bass work here. Reverend Jackson, which was also the album’s first single, opens with gritty guitar that fits well with the stark situation in the first verse: a man has just been sentenced to life in prison for killing a local preacher. The twist? The preacher didn’t do such a great job keeping the Ten Commandments, himself. The dialogue between the narrator and his wife is especially well-written.
On the lighter end of things is Little Mountain Girl, a sweet love song about the life-changing power of a woman’s love. It has a brighter sound than most of the rest of the album, leaning a little more toward a country style. Also serving as a change of pace is the poignant Still My Mama, which chronicles the narrator’s mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s. The lyrics are packed with specific details that are sure to tug at the heartstrings of anyone facing the same journey with family members: “To her I’m a stranger, but she welcomes me back again, tells me of her younger days and all the things she’s done.”
Turning Ground is packed with strong musicians, and they put their all into this record. The core band, consisting of Arnett (lead vocals and guitar), Hale (bass, guitar, and harmony vocals), Hensley (banjo), Ralph Adams (guitar and harmony vocals), and Kyle Kleinman (mandolin), are joined by several guest musicians, including Jason Barie on fiddle and Randy Kohrs on resophonic guitar. The banjo and bass are truly of particular note, but it’s really a strong album overall. Perhaps a bit heavy on the loneliness and desperation, but good stuff.
For more information on Turning Ground, visit them online. Their new album is available from several online retailers.