In today’s music world, where the boundaries between genres are ever blurrier, many artists choose to step outside of their musical comfort zone and record an album in a different style. Sometimes they take a huge leap – Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith fame, recording a country album, for instance. Other times, they stick much closer to what their fans are used to, like swapping out the electric instruments of modern country music for acoustic bluegrass. For folk singer-songwriter Mary Beth Cross, it wasn’t a huge stretch to embrace a grassier sound on her latest album, Feels Like Home. With producer Chris Pandolfi, she has put together a warm, down-to-earth album that fans of “acousticana” music should enjoy.
Cross has created something of a concept album that rejoices in the importance of home. And no, you’re not going to find any “going back to the old home”-type songs here. Instead, Cross sought to record songs that reminded her of both her childhood home in Wisconsin and her present-day residence in Colorado. Threshing Time, penned by Cross and her father, is a cheerful mid-tempo number that hearkens back to those Wisconsin days. Told from the point of view of her father as a young boy in the 1940s, it’s a pleasant glimpse at a way of life that’s almost been forgotten. On the Colorado side of things is another original, Cottonwood Creek, which celebrates the simple things in life. It has an organic feel, opening with hand claps from the album’s musicians.
Paul Simon’s Kathy’s Song doesn’t fall far from Cross’s folk roots; its gentle melody opens the album on a peaceful note. Softly rolling banjo from Pandolfi and mellow guitar from Tyler Grant make this a soothing song. Long, Long Time, a Linda Ronstadt cover, has a choppier, more urgent arrangement, reflecting the anger in the song’s lyrics: “I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine, and I think it’s gonna hurt me for a long, long time.” Perhaps the most traditionally bluegrass song here – and one of the album’s highlights – is the excellent rendition of Shady Grove, performed in the style of Doc Watson. Grant’s guitar picking is top-tier here, while Jeremy Garrett on mandolin and Pandolfi also offer skilled solos and Cross fills her vocals with emotion.
Rounding out the album is The Medley, an evocative eight minute track blending three songs – George Gershwin’s Summertime, Van Morrison’s Moondance, and Cross’s own Pas De Deux. Summertime is sultry and bluesy, setting up a sound completely different from the rest of the album. Cross continues in that same sound throughout the suggestive Pas De Deux and soulful Moondance, finishing the track with a reprise of Pas De Deux in French. Garrett’s fiddle playing sets the tone perfectly throughout the medley, working nicely with Adrian Engfer’s jazzy bass.
Feels Like Home is a fairly brief album, but it’s a nice sampler of Cross’s ability to embrace different styles of music that touch on the bluegrass spectrum. Pandolfi, Garrett, Grant, and Engfer form a willing and able band, particularly shining on Shady Grove and The Medley. Those who listen will likely want more.
Feels Like Home is available from several online music retailers. For more information, visit www.marybethcross.com.