Mandolin player Darren Nicholson subtitles his new album, Fret A Spell, as Instrumental Bluegrass. Of course, the description isn’t really necessary. Given the fact that most of the offerings in this 13 song set are well known standards, the music itself offers all the explanation needed. Indeed, the song credits speak for themselves, and when one includes classics by Bill Monroe, Jay Ungar, Bobby Osborne, and Earl Scrugss, a quality selection is all but guaranteed right from the start.
Of course it helps that the instrumental ensemble charged with delivering these tunes is also first rate. With Marc Pruett and Charles Wood on banjo, Jason Moore and Taylor Nicholson playing bass, Hunter Berry supplying the fiddle, Andy Hall on dobro, and Steve Lewis strumming guitar, the results are both decisive and determined. Still, credit Nicholson himself for assuring the success. A founding member of Balsam Range, a Grammy Award nominee and recipient of five high profile nods from the IBMA, Nicholson ensures that the focus remains exactly where it should be, that is, on the melodies and the musicianship of everyone that’s involved.
As for the selections themselves, most keep to a generally upbeat sound. The album gets off to a rousing start courtesy of Bill Monroe’s Rawhide and the song that follows, Kansas City Kitty. Nevertheless, the jaunty Cherokee Lady and a sprightly In the Sweet By and By typify the tone overall — a sound that’s more festive than frenzied, more rambling than raucous. Each player gets a chance to solo, a pointed part of Nicholson’s sole original, Crow on a Wire, which allows the musicians to bring their skills fully to the fore. Yet when they launch into Nicholson’s breathtaking arrangement of Old Joe Clark (here retitled Old Jah Clark Mon), there’s no mistaking the overall exuberance.
There are moments of occasional respite as well — the easy lilt of Cherokee Lady and the eternally touching Ashokan Farewell being the two most notable examples. Not surprisingly, the singing isn’t missed, given that the arrangements serve the songs so well.
Consider Fret a Spell a lesson in how to perform bluegrass with both freshness and finesse.