Flatt Lonesome on right track with Runaway Train

Runaway Train - Flatt LonesomeLet’s cut right to the heart of the matter: Flatt Lonesome’s Runaway Train is one of the best CDs I’ve heard this year.

Not just the band, which is tight, or the songs, which are stout. Nearly everything about this record is top-notch, making it a roadmap for bands looking to make a CD that will please existing fans and make new ones.

The band has been hitting its stride in recent years, getting stronger and more confident with each project, so I expected this CD to be good. But not this good.

Much of the success is owed to the song selection. This one has a strong dose of country – pardon me, I mean real country, not the pop-infused stuff that dominates the airwaves now – mixed with conventional, in-the-pocket bluegrass.

But even the best songs can fall flat if the vocals aren’t up to snuff. No worries about that here! The lead and harmony vocals are better than on the band’s earlier efforts, and they were good to start with. Each one of the three siblings – Kelsi Robertson Harrigill, Charli Robertson and Buddy Robertson – has the vocal chops to carry an entire record. But when you mix them up, there’s an added layer of freshness and originality.

It’s tough to pick favorites, but two of the best songs for my money are from the country side of the ledger. First is You’re The One, written by Dwight Yoakam. You could teach an entire vocal workshop from this version, with Charli singing lead and Kelsi and Buddy layering the harmonies. The song just demands that listeners sing along.

A close second is Mixed Up Mess of Heart, from Tommy Collins and Merle Haggard. It’s an infectious song, and you can tell by listening that Buddy had a blast with the vocal. It’s a potentially risky choice for bluegrass, but the band pulls it off with aplomb. Kudos to Daniel Mullins, a DJ and Bluegrass Today colleague, for calling the song to Flatt Lonesome’s attention, and for the band to have the chutzpah to give it a shot.

Also outside the bluegrass box are a cover of Gram Parsons’ Still Feeling Blue, with Kelsi taking the lead, and the title cut, co-written by Aussie Kasey Chambers. Charli takes the lead here, ending the record with an edgy, energy-filled approach that left me wanting more.

The more conventional songs are solid, too, especially You’ll Pay, written by producer Danny Roberts and band member Paul Harrigill, and Don’t Come Running, written by David and Don Parmley and previously recorded by the Bluegrass Cardinals. And if you’re looking for sad songs, you can’t go wrong with Letting Go, written by Paul and and Kelsi.

Speaking of production, this is how a good record is supposed to sound. The pace and feel of the songs have been carefully thought out, keeping the listener guessing about what’s next and avoiding the rut of sameness that too many bluegrass CDs fall into these days.

I do have one nit to pick. Because the songs are edgier, in general, than the band’s past work, the perfect enunciation on some of the vocals actually seems grating. If you’re going to let your hair down, it’s OK – even preferable – to drop a “g” from an “ing” word every once in a while. I’m not lyin’ or makin’ that up.

But overall, Flatt Lonesome is on the right track. Runaway Train is a runaway success.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and has recently retired as senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.