Every recording artist no doubt sets out to make his or her newest CD better than the last one. Some, frankly, don’t succeed. Others smash right through the “better” barrier, taking their careers to lofty new heights and setting the bar remarkably high for improving next time.
Faster and Farther from Darin and Brooke Aldridge is firmly in that latter category. I expected good. Everything this husband and wife duo puts out earns that label. But, from first listen, I was blown away by how good. Good enough to earn the project and the artists a bucketful of IBMA nominations later this year, I’m betting. And, this time next year, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the CD is up for a Grammy. That good!
So what makes Faster and Farther the project that can take the unassuming North Carolinians to the next level of the bluegrass pecking order? Just about everything: The performances, of course. But also the song selection, the production values, the all-star supporting cast and, last but not least, a little bit of old-fashioned luck and a lot of drive.
Right from the start, Faster and Farther offers pleasant echoes of the New Grass Revival, with opening number Kingdom Come from the pen of Revival member Pat Flynn. It’s never been recorded before – Pat was saving it in case there was Revival revival. But if this is the closest we ever get to a reunion record, it’s way more than a reasonable facsimile, with Flynn’s guitar and former bandmate John Cowan’s bass driving hard behind Brooke’s vocal. There’s another Flynn number, Lila, and a couple from Cowan among the 12 cuts, forming the backbone of the memorable soundtrack.
That’s no accident. Darin was a huge fan of the band. “They had such an impact on music in general, not just bluegrass,” he recalled recently. “I loved that contemporary side ever since I started playing music.” Added Cowan, “Darin grew up listening to the New Grass Revival. He knew the catalog forwards and backwards…I’m a lucky guy. Twenty-five years after the breakup of New Grass Revival, that’s still my calling card.”
But it’s a trio of songs by other writers – two from Carl Jackson and one from Canadian treasure Ian Tyson – that speak the most to me on this project.
Jackson’s Eugene and Diane is a terrific “one that got away” song with an even-better back story. “Well,” Jackson told me, “There was a girl I was dating, but things didn’t work out. My middle name is Eugene, and her name is Diane.” The rest of the story? You can hear it on the CD, or quite soon, I’m sure, on the radio.
“I’m so proud to be a part of such a great record,” said Jackson, who has three cuts on the project. “Songs don’t always turn out the way you hope, but these were just right.”
Another song from Jackson’s pen, Highway of Heartache, could stand very well on its own. But this version is taken to a new level with harmonies from Vince Gill blending seamlessly with Brooke’s lead and Darin’s backing vocal.
“I wanted to try hard to get him” to sing, Darin said, recalling an effort on an earlier project that fell through. “Pretty much the reason I play music is my love and passion for Vince’s music,” Darin said. “I’d say he’s my number one influence.”
So when Vince called to say yes, Darin was, shall we say, a little excited. So excited, in fact, that he missed the freeway ramp and had to detour 10 miles out of his way.
To break the ice at Gill’s Tennessee studio, Darin played Hero of Mine, which he had written for Gill and recorded on an earlier Darin and Brooke CD. That moment, before they got around to tracking his harmonies, still sticks with Gill.
“It’s pretty flattering to be that person that people look up to,” the country star told me. “I’m flattered that there are young kids that look up to what I’ve done.”
When I expressed surprise that Gill would trade the spotlight for an afternoon of singing harmonies, he quickly set me straight.
“I still feel flattered that people ask me to do things on their records,” he said, noting in an aside that it’s actually harder to be “a supporting cast member…You don’t just get to do your own thing.”
It helped that he knows Darin and Brooke’s work, of course, but he said he tries to help out whenever someone asks and it fits his hectic schedule. “Think of what it would do if you weren’t nice, if you ripped some kid’s heart out.”
He also sees a fast-approaching day when the Aldridges will play for others the supportive and supporting role he’s playing for them. “They’re such nice kids,” he said. “They’re for each other. I like the way they sing. I like the way they treat people.
My favorite song here is Someday Soon, in part because it’s high on my all-time personal list. Its place on the record is one of those happy accidents. Darin and Brooke have been using it for sound checks for a while, but weren’t putting it on the set list. That changed the night Cowan and some members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band heard the sound check and pushed the pair to add it to the set list. It’s been there ever since.
Speaking of “happy accidents,” another is Cowan’s presence on the CD and in the band’s live shows that don’t conflict with his regular job (with some band called the Doobie Brothers!). They share a manager, Brian Smith. One day, when they attended Cowan’s show, he invited them up to sing and liked what he heard. “At one point, I just asked Brian if he would ask them about playing music together.” He did, they did, and they still do.
Though Faster and Farther is clearly the strongest work Darin and Brooke have done, Cowan is convinced the best is yet to come.
“Brooke is just coming into her own,” he said. “It takes a singer a while to find their voice. It’s just going to keep getting better and better for her. I think as artists, they’re just coming into their own now. I don’t see any reason why they can’t become icons.”
Brooke accepts the accolades with an “aw shucks” air of humility so sincere that you can practically hear her blushing over the phone. But she does admit feeling different about this CD.
“I felt like I kind of found my voice,” she said. “I just feel I’ve gotten stronger and more comfortable.”
If the goal is to be even better next time – to go fasterer and fartherer, as Darin, Brooke and I joked on the phone – I’m eager to hear what they come up with.
But not too eager. Faster and Farther is a gem of a recording that officially comes out February 10 from Mountain Home Music Company. I’m looking forward to spending some more quality time with it.