Jesse Gregory is a strong young vocalist from Maryville, TN, currently enrolled in the Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program at East Tennessee State University. She has the distinction of being the first woman to declare a bluegrass major there, and would seem to have a bright future ahead of her in music as she begins to pursue it professionally after graduating after the Fall 2013 semester.
Faultline, her debut CD, was released in 2012, and producers Clay Hess and Randy Kohrs assembled a crack band in support of Gregory’s voice. Hess plays guitar and Korhs reso-guitar, with Sierra Hull on mandolin, Justin Moses on banjo, Tim Crouch on fiddle, and Harold Nixon and Jay Weaver on bass.
Jesse sings with power and authority, and stands out from most of her contemporaries both for the quality and tone of her voice, and by refraining from torturing each line of a melody with every twist and turn imaginable. Far too many young singers seem to view melody as a mere framework for their vocal acrobatics, a trend that has long existed in pop music, and more recently has crept into bluegrass. It is more than a little refreshing to hear Jesse belt out a song without a trace of this “show off” style, which takes a confidence and maturity beyond her 21 years.
But she tells us it’s not because she isn’t aware of, or capable of doing it.
“I grew up practicing vocals with CDs of my favorite singers. If I couldn’t hit vocal inflections just as they did, I would practice until I had something exactly right. As I got older, I took bits and pieces of everything that I had learned (and continue to learn) to make my own style. I don’t want to sound like anyone, but to have my very own unique sound.
Those singers I practice with are usually not bluegrass singers. I love to try and sing/keep up with people like Christina Aguilera or Beyonce. I also am crazy about LeeAnn Womack. Bluegrass and bluegrass/Gospel is where my heart is, but practicing with these types of singers makes those ‘bluegrass trills and inflections’ so much easier!”
She and her producers have chosen 11 terrific songs for this project, mostly new compositions from top writers like Craig Market, Jennifer Strickland, Jerry Salley, Keith Sewell, Dottie Rambo, Clay Hess and Justin Carbone. The sound and production are decidedly contemporary bluegrass, set off nicely by Jesse’s unadorned vocal delivery, with lines held out sans vibrato or the overuse of trills.
Harmony vocals are stellar as well, with contributions from Alison Krauss, Sierra Hull, Randy Kohrs, Justin Moses, Jennifer Strickland and Clay Hess.
Choosing highlight tracks is difficult, as each is a gem. One is Love Lifted Me, a 100 year old Gospel song which has been cut by dozens of country and Gospel artists, gets a rousing bluegrass treatment here. Another is Last Train Done Gone Down, famously recorded by John Denver in 1997. I’ve seen this commonly credited to Peter Rowan, though the writer here is shown as Allen Toussaint. Also strong is Gregory’s cover of Always On A Mountain When I Fall, a 1978 hit for Merle Haggard, and the opening track Highway Of Pain from Glenn Dauphin.
Faultline is a record that slipped under our radar last year. It deserves far wider attention than it has received, even if it comes a few months late. Don’t let this fine album pass you by.
Special kudos to Kohrs, who engineered and mixed at his Slack Key Studio in Nashville, for the sonic purity throughout.