It’s somewhat rare for a banjo player to release a solo album that’s not mostly instrumental, or at least packed full of classic banjo-heavy numbers. Stuart Wyrick, current banjo player for Flashback and formerly of Brand New Strings and Dale Ann Bradley’s band, has recently released East Tennessee Sunrise, a well-rounded record that not only allows him to show off his picking prowess but also digs deep into the bluegrass and country catalogs with tracks from Wes Golding, the Louvin Brothers, and Dolly Parton, among others. Wyrick has pulled together an A-list band and a number of talented lead vocalists, making this project a solid contribution to modern traditional grass.
Golding’s Hitchhiking to California starts the album off on an enthusiastic note. The song has a great retro vibe (think Boone Creek, of which Golding was a member), with lead vocals shared by Steve Gulley and Alan Bibey. The vocals are energetic and soulful, but the highlight here is the instrumentation – frenetic banjo from Wyrick, groove-filled mandolin from Bibey, and a solid bass line from Gulley, in particular. The song was previously recorded as part of the Baucom, Bibey, Graham, and Haley project from the late nineties, as was another track here – Jimmy Haley’s lost love tale You’re the One. It, too, has a throwback feel – more nineties than late seventies, though – and Randall Massengill, Wyrick’s former Brand New Strings bandmate, provides a nice high lead vocal. Both songs are definite standouts here.
Lead single Little Moonshine Johnny is a fun traditional romp, written and sung by east Tennessee fiddler Keith Williams. Wyrick’s bouncy banjo and Tim Crouch’s fiddle work well together. The band heads toward classic country with a version of Ernest Tubb’s Walking the Floor. Keith Garrett’s smooth voice is perfect for this song, while Crouch’s western swing fiddles are excellent. Dolly Parton’s When Someone Wants to Leave is also from the country world, but Wyrick has given it a bluegrass makeover. Dale Ann Bradley was a great choice to sing lead here; her plaintive, straightforward style fits the song (which was one of Parton’s more stripped down numbers) nicely. Just listen to her sing “What do you do, what do you say, when you know they want to leave as bad as you want them to stay?” Phil Leadbetter’s dobro gives the song an extra bit of lonesomeness.
A pair of Gospel songs are also enjoyable. Ira and Charlie Louvin’s Born Again is a good mid-tempo number with earnest lead vocals from Gary Kidwell and clear harmonies from Gulley and Wyrick. The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow is quiet and gentle, beginning with contemplative guitar from Kenny Smith, allowing the song’s lyrics to take center stage. Vic Graves gives a powerful performance, reminding listeners that the Lord will always take care of those who place their trust in Him.
Wyrick contributes a handful of original instrumentals, including the peppy, swingy title track and Riding on the Clouds, a pensive tune with a darker, more urgent feel than most of the other tracks here and an intriguing melody. Of course, it couldn’t be a banjo player’s album without a Scruggs tune, but interestingly, Wyrick chose one from Gary instead of Earl. Freda Florentine is from Flatt & Scruggs’ Nashville Airplane album and is a bright, upbeat number with a contemporary sound.
East Tennessee Sunrise is a strong effort from an excellent banjo player that should please both fans of the banjo as well as those who enjoy modern traditional bluegrass in general. For more information on Stuart Wyrick, visit his website at www.stuartwyrick.com. His new album is available from several online music retailers.