Over the past few years Volume Five has been quietly releasing some of the most consistently entertaining contemporary bluegrass you can find. I say quietly because they are rarely mentioned as among the top tier acts in our business, and they certainly deserve to be in that discussion.
The secret to their success has been the appealing voice of fiddler and founder Glenn Harrell, and their inerrant ability to choose tuneful songs that suit their sound. They easily blend a contemporary feel with traditional material, but it’s the quality and perceptiveness of the songs they record that sets them apart.
Drifter, their sixth album since 2008, from Mountain Fever Records is set for release tomorrow (June 24), and it may be their best to this point. All the elements that make this such a likable band are in evidence from the opening track, the first single, I Am A Drifter. Written by Donna Ulisse and Marc Rossi, it has an easily singable melody and lyrics that relate a compelling story about someone that can’t stay put. It has been doing very well on our Bluegrass Today Weekly Airplay chart this past few weeks.
But like all the songs here it works on a Shakespearean – or Bullwinklean – level as well. The Bard has been praised for centuries for his ability to give the uneducated masses a tale of intrigue to capture their imagination, while also including elements of philosophy and human interaction to involve the minds of the intelligentsia. Just so with the classic Bullwinkle cartoons, which distracted children with silly characters, while entertaining their parents with witty asides that flew right over the children’s heads.
Volume Five can please a fan who just wants to hear a bluegrass beat with a pleasant melody, but the rhythmic interplay between the instruments can enthrall a more sophisticated listener after multiple hearings. It’s a special skill, and may ultimately be the one thing that eventually allows this talented quintet to rise to the top, a la Blue Highway.
This rings true for all the tracks on Drifter, from ballads like Because Of You (Ronnie Bowman/Jon Nite) and Scarecrow (Kevin Denney/Tom Botkin) to grassy burners 95 Years (Carter Moore), and Alaskan Gold (Colby Laney),.Harrell’s voice sells the songs and the band supports him with appropriate accompaniment. And they are each intelligent songs, even when following traditional themes we have come to expect from “cabin songs.”
There are several standouts that bear special mention. Ranching Man from Jesse Daniel is a textbook demonstration of an effective pop song. It’s the story of a young man who’s fallen in love with the girl of his dreams, but her father is trying to manipulate their relationship with his wealth. But instead of simply telling the story journalistically, Daniel reveals it in pieces over two verses and a chorus, so that by the end you completely understand the young man’s dilemma. A sure sign of a great song is when you are sorry to hear it end. I’d love to hear the end to this story.
Tall Pines has always struck me as one of the great Bill Monroe songs from his later years, but one that is rarely heard these days. The Damon Black number holds up quite well, and Glenn and the boys give it a hearty contemporary grass treatment.
Jerry Cole’s With My Gun is another with what is becoming the trademark Volume Five sound; funky, bluesy, and with a narrative that breaks from the typical bluegrass subject matter. Again, it works on many levels.
The album’s lone instrumental, Lucky Seven, was contributed by guitarist Colby Laney. It’s a fast moving romp with a fiddle tune form. Everyone gets a taste, Harrell on fiddle, Harry Clark on mandolin, and Patton Wages on banjo. Chris Williamson handles the bass and Jeff Partin plays reso-guitar and bass on a few tracks.
I can’t say enough about Glenn Harrell as a lead vocalist. He isn’t the sort to show off or embellish a song with extra trills or “look at me” ornaments. He just delivers each one with the seriousness it deserves, in a style fitting to the material. He could become one of our top bluegrass singers before he’s done.
The whole album is top-notch, and worthy of attention from anyone who appreciates contemporary bluegrass performed with precision and passion. Drifter is a winner.