Though western North Carolina has long been known as a hotbed of traditional music, much of the attention has focused on the old-time, mountain styles – ballad singers, string bands, and the like – found throughout the region’s hills and valleys. However, the first release from Mark Kuykendall, Bobby Hicks, & Asheville Bluegrass, Down Memory Lane, goes a long way to remind listeners that the area has its fair share of bluegrass traditionalists, as well. The album’s thirteen tracks offer a crisp, clean style that is easily traced back to the first generation of bluegrass.
Hicks is a name that any bluegrass fan ought to be acquainted with; his pedigree includes time and recordings with Bill Monroe, the Bluegrass Album Band, and Ricky Skaggs, among others, and few would argue that he’s one of the best bluegrass fiddlers to ever pick up a bow. Kuykendall’s name might be a little less familiar to listeners, but he too has an impressive resume – in addition to being a veteran of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, he also spent time with Jimmy Martin and Raymond Fairchild. Along with Nick Chandler (mandolin), Nick Dauphinais (bass), and Seth Rhinehart (banjo), they’ve formed a fine band.
The songs here are a mixture of old and new, but without examining the liner notes, it’s hard to figure out which are which. Kuykendall wrote five of the thirteen, and proves himself a good hand at writing in the traditional style. Sweetheart of the Mountains, the first track and lead single, has been earning quite a bit of radio airplay since its release a few months ago. It has a fair amount of drive, guided by Rhinehart’s tasteful banjo playing and laced through with fiddle from Hicks. A cheerful love song about returning to the one the singer loves, it could easily pass as an updated version of something from Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs.
Old Mountain Home is another upbeat track with the familiar storyline of wishing for the home of the singer’s youth, while the narrator of Coming Home Never to Part actually gets to make that trip home. Jesus Rescued My Soul, a strong Gospel number in the vein of Paul Williams, is one of the album’s best tracks. Kuykendall’s lead vocals are excellent here, and the band – which is top-notch throughout – really seems to click, from the solid guitar runs to Chandler’s great mandolin intro and powerful chop.
You Go to Your Church, an older song that’s been recorded by a number of bluegrass and Gospel groups, is another standout, as is Hank Williams’s On the Evening Train, an expressive song told from the perspective of a man watching his wife’s casket be placed in a train’s baggage coach. Kuykendall does a fantastic job interpreting Williams’s lyrics, while Hicks’s fiddle underscores the song’s mournfulness nicely. The Gospel quartet A Beautiful Life finishes off the disc with great vocal harmonies.
Down Memory Lane is one of the best straightforward traditional albums I’ve heard in a while. Kuykendall, Hicks, & Asheville Bluegrass certainly know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to this style of music, and the songs here are a treat to listen to. The music and vocals are smooth and the musicians support each other well. Fans of classic bluegrass will want to add this to their collections.