After a fairly lengthy absence from the bluegrass scene, Dan Tyminski began a long-awaited return to touring and recording recently, both on the road with the Dan Tyminski Band, and with the release of a Tony Rice tribute EP last summer, on which he collaborated with quite a few bluegrass all-stars. Now, he’s back with his first full-length bluegrass effort in fifteen years. Backed up by his excellent touring band, and having co-written nine of ten tracks on the album, God Fearing Heathen is a fine re-introduction to Tyminski’s strong grasp of modern bluegrass music.
I was a little hesitant when the first single was announced as a bluegrass revision of his smash EDM hit, Hey Brother, a collaboration with Swedish DJ Avicii from 2013, afraid that it would simply be an acoustic re-tread of the original. Although Tyminski’s vocals and phrasing are (obviously) very similar, along with the general melody of the song, the band has done a commendable job turning the track into a rushing, pulsating bluegrass number, guided by Jason Davis’s powerful banjo and strong fiddle from Maddie Denton. The harmonies are note-perfect, as well – a nice substitution for the more electronic sounds of the original.
Tyminski’s rich, instantly-recognizable vocals are the centerpiece of the album, allowing him to deftly make his way through songs that lean toward a more Americana, singer-songwriter vibe as well as straightforward, traditionally-influenced grass. Never Met a Stranger is an upbeat, fiddle-led track filled with drive and a similar feel to the arrangement of Hey Brother. Penned by Tyminski, Luke Dick, and Jaida Dreyer, it’s a positive ode to a life spent traveling, featuring the opposite point of view of the usual lonesome bluegrass rambling song. Never Comin’ Home is classic-sounding Dan T, with angry instrumentation backing the story of a heartless woman leaving: “I called her mama, but the number done got changed. Guess it didn’t take her no time to go and run down my good name.” Harsh!
A more upbeat, bouncy look at heartbreak is Occam’s Razor, in which Tyminski takes issue with the philosophy that the most likely explanation is the simplest one. It’s very cleverly written, with Tyminski’s main complaint against Occam that he “was a friar, unaffected by the games a woman plays” – obviously, in the singer’s mind, making his theory moot. Also on the more fun-sounding side of things (and one of my favorite tracks on the album) is Ode to Jimmy, one of the best tribute songs I’ve heard in quite a while. The titular Jimmy is, of course, the King of Bluegrass himself, JImmy Martin, described to a T by Tyminski: “he played high and lonesome, beat that guitar half to death. A paisley coat, houndstooth hat, and old Red 7 on his breath.”
The title track, which Tyminski wrote with Ira Dean, is a thoughtful rumination on just exactly who will end up in heaven. It’s a stark, stripped-back track with Tyminski’s earnest vocals accompanied only by guitar. As Tyminski admits to not quite living up to typical Christian standards, he also asserts his belief: “I could have stood in the darkness and loaded the gun, but I prayed holes in the knees of these old faded jeans for a place up in heaven for a God-fearing heathen like me.”
Though it’s great to hear Tyminski singing bluegrass again, a special mention surely needs to go to his band. In addition to Davis and Denton, Tyminski is backed by Gaven Largent on dobro, Harry Clark on mandolin, and Grace Davis on bass. Simply put, this is one of the tightest bands playing today, and they’re just as strong live as they are on this album. In particular, Jason Davis’s banjo work truly helps hold the album together – a constant, driving presence that helps elevate the music here. His work on this album helps make a good case for a Banjo Player of the Year nomination.
Overall, God Fearing Heathen is firing on all cylinders all the way through. Strong song choice, excellent musicianship, and Tyminski’s awesome vocals combine for a top-notch release.