Family bands tend to have a limited run in bluegrass. It’s inevitable that the kids age, get married, have children. Life happens, as they say. In recent years, I’ve seen several of my favorites move on – Cherryholmes, the Bankesters and, soon, Flatt Lonesome.
But as part of the musical cycle, it seems promising new family bands emerge to fill the vacuum. Among the most recent new crop is The Family Sowell, whose first full CD, From Texas to Tennessee, is one of the best projects I’ve heard in 2018.
The CD is a true family affair. The kids play all of the instruments, mom joins them for some vocals, and dad manages the band and shares writing credits on Dusty Gravel Road, the chart-climbing single that kicks off the album.
Family members have worked hard for their success, including two years of immersion at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, mentoring sessions with hit songwriters, and an all-hands-on-deck attendance at one of Donna Ulisse’s intensive weekend songwriting retreats that resulted in three sparkling originals in this 11-song lineup.
To me, the crown jewel in the collection is Dusty Gravel Road, written by Jerry Salley, Guynn Sowell, and John-Mark Sowell. The song is the story of Guynn’s childhood, but it’s really what most of us lived through in our formative years, whether they were spent on a rural road or in a busy suburban or city setting. We have special memories of those years, and maintain ties to those places long after we’ve moved on. The particulars are Guynn’s, but the song’s universal appeal was clearly shaped by Salley, who is near the top of the heap of songwriters, in any genre.
Ulisse and one of her regular writing partners, Marc Rossi, are top notch, too, though here they split up to write with different family members. Rossi wrote Pilgrim’s Prayer, which already feels like a bluegrass Gospel standard, with Joshua and Naomi Sowell. Ulisse teamed up with Jacob and Abigail Sowell on God Knows Who He Is, a powerful portrait of struggling veterans.
But this Poor Mountain Records CD is about far more than well-crafted songs. The instrumentation, by the kids (Justus – Dobro, John-Mark – fiddle, Abigail – mandolin and guitar, Naomi – bass, Joshua – mandolin and guitar, Jacob – banjo and guitar) is solid and clean throughout, as much a tribute to producer Zachary Alvis as to them.
And the vocals? They’re everything I’ve come to expect from family bands that are farther into their journey than these folks. The harmonies are tight and sublime. As for lead vocals, it’s impossible to pick a favorite because they’re all so strong.
The family is very open about their love of God, so there’s no surprise that two of the originals and many of the covers are God-centric. Among the best: Perfect Love, written by Annie McRae, and Softly and Tenderly, which is in the public domain.
But my favorite part of the collection, aside from Dusty Gravel Road, comes right in the middle. First is a pleasing remake of Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen. That’s followed by Speak Love, written by Rory Lee Feek, Kristen Hill, Joey Martin, Adair Scholten, and Jeff Silvey. Those two songs showcase the band’s musical abilities and range of material in just under five and a half minutes.
There is one thing on the record that doesn’t work for me, though your mileage may vary. It’s the last cut, a live version of Chubby Wise’s Orange Blossom Special, recorded at Dollywood. My issue isn’t the playing, which is terrific. It’s the poor sound quality. After hearing 10 crisply recorded songs, this one seems badly out of place. It’s a fingernails on the blackboard moment for me. The CD would be just about perfect without it. But, truth be told, it’s mighty fine with it.